New York has had many memorable park chiefs, from the titanic Robert Moses to the inimitable Henry Stern, with his habit of dressing up as a tree and being “plantedhenry stern.” But in terms of heart, soul and sheer eccentricity, none can top the singular Charles Bunstein Stover.

Stover was appointed New York City’s park commissioner in 1910 by Mayor William Jay Gaynor and quickly gained notoriety for a series of baffling disappearances. Shortly before taking office he vanished for six weeks, ostensibly to immerse himself in a study of Italian landscape gardening. When three lion cubs were born at the Central Park Menagerie, Stover dropped out again, shutting himself in his library “with a vast pile of historical lore” and emerging only when he had settled on three good names for the cats—Akbar, Jumna, and Sheba. A final vanishing act in October, 1913 so alarmed city officials that footage of Stover was patched together by Pathé Frères and shown in 10,000 movie halls across the United States, in the hope that a patron might have seen him.

Speculation ran wild as to where, why and how Stover disappeared. A close friend wondered if the cause was not “a blow on the head or an excess of grief” over the death—from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt—of his beloved Mayor Gaynor. A lead traced Stover to Philadelphia; another suggested he drowned in Wilmington, where a body recovered in the Christiana River bore a “striking resemblance” to the missing commissioner. He surfaced briefly—alive—in New Orleans, but not before a story got out that he had taken up with a missing Chicago alderman at a San Francisco hotel. Then, on January 28, 1914, the peripatetic park chief quietly appeared again in New York, explaining only that he had been touring the South to study its cities.


Charles Bunstein Stover was born in Riegelsville, Pennsylvania in July, 1861, the son of a shopkeeper. While preparing for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary he suffered a shattering loss of faith—”a phalanx of terrible doubts,” Stover called it, “like a thunder-crash in the clear heavens.” The experience shook him deeply, plunging him into depression. Redemption came by way of Stanton Coit of the Ethical Culture Society, who convinced Stover to run the Society’s model tenement houses on Cherry Street. Stover eventually succeeded Coit as director of the Neighborhood Guild, the first settlement house in America. The Guild provided immigrant youth sanctuary from the streets, and was meant—in Stover’s words—”to encourage thrift and fellow-helpfulness, to purify and exalt the tastes, to excite opposition to all forms of injustice, and to kindle devotion to the common weal.” Later renamed University Settlement, the institution still exists in the same building at 184 Eldridge Street, where Stover lived—a lifelong bachelor—for 40 years. Its extraordinary list of alumni includes George and Ira Gershwin, Abe Beame and Jacob Javits.

In 1894 Stover’s melancholia struck again. Penniless after spending most of a small inheritance on civic causes, Stover seemed tormented now by a loss of faith in humanity. Hoping that a permanent change of scene might lift his spirits, he left New York for Europe, vowing never to return. But the stormclouds shadowed him across the Atlantic. Soon “his pessimism had grown so deep,” wrote biographer J. K. Paulding, “that he held the greatest crime of which a man could be guilty was that of perpetuating his own species.” And yet Stover faithfully kept his settlement-house boys informed, blog-like, of his travels. Not until the following summer in London, after a suicide attempt in which he nearly drowned in the Thames, did Stover finally emerge from his nadir. What spared his life was “a rush of angel-wings,” he later wrote, “which stirred the waters, and thrilled me with an impulse to get back to New York and engage in the battle for the right.”

The next 20 years were the most productive of Stover’s life. In 1898 he founded the Outdoor Recreation League, which opened “Hudsonbank” in Hell’s Kitchen—the first public playground in an American city (DeWitt Clinton Park today). The League established other playgrounds at Hamilton Fish, Seward, Corlear’s Hook and Mulberry Bend Parks. In 1903 Stover cheerfully proclaimed City Hall “fully converted to the playground idea.” As park commissioner Stover had the authority to make “scientific play” part of every Manhattan park. His Bureau of Recreation opened 30 new playgrounds on the island, launched a program of athletic competitions, folk-dance festivals and pageants, and organized a school garden program 80 years before Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyards. Stover proposed erecting log cabins in city parks to recycle blight-felled chestnut timber and had rock excavate from construction of the Catskill Aqueduct trucked down to extend Riverside Park. He even succeeded in ridding Central Park of poison ivy—temporarily, at least.

Nor were Stover’s’ labors restricted to Manhattan: he also helped create Gotham’s first and only public park on the Atlantic. New Yorkers at the turn of the last century had no public beach access to the sea (Coney Island was nearly all in private hands at the time). “We have turned our backs on old Neptune,” lamented Stover, “as if our city stood in the midst of a great continent.” Stover envisioned building a great playground for the people on a stretch of then-remote oceanfront land in the Rockaways; for it was “high time,” he wrote, “for this municipality, like Venice, to go down to the sea and become its bride.” He urged the city to acquire the entire western end of Rockaway peninsula—from Belle Harbor to Breezy Point—while the land was cheap. At 850 acres, Stover’s seaside park would have been equal in size to Central Park. But the city dragged its feet and developers soon snatched up the property, churning much of the peninsula into a warren of cheap bungalows. The acreage eventually secured for what would become Jacob Riis Park—today part of Gateway National Recreation Area—was but a third of what Stover had envisioned.

Charles Stover’s advocacy for the public good knew few boundaries. As president of the East Side Civic Club he led a decade-long fight against elevated rail structures, arguing that they plunged streets into darkness and screeching clamor. It is due in part to his labors that New York became the first major American city to make public transit truly public—owned, that is, by the city and its citizens rather than leased to a private franchise. Achieving this was not easy. The Rapid Transit Commission was opposed; the people and their political leaders indifferent. The most forceful broadsides in favor of municipal ownership came from a mysterious Chadwick Civic Club, which most assumed was an august body of leading men. In reality it was just a front for Stover and a handful of his reformist buddies, who gather weekly at a Rivington Street bakery.

Stover is largely forgotten today, a status he would likely have appreciated. There are no parks—no playgrounds, even—named after him. He is recalled in the New York only by a memorial “whispering bench,” tucked in a corner of the Shakespeare Garden. It is but a stone’s throw from the Arsenal, headquarters of the Parks Department, a quiet spot in the city where our current Commissioner might well repair upon occasion to seek counsel from his kindhearted, often-absent predecessor.


Vinegar Hill in the 1930s was a rough industrial neighborhood just port of the Navy Yard with a main drag, Sands Street, that left many a sailor penniless, inked-up, syphilitic or dead. Bobbing above the bars and brothels were two churches, one around the corner from the other—St. George at 203 York Street and St. Ann on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Two others—St. Michael the Archangel at Lawrence and Tillary Streets and St. Edwards just off Myrtle Avenue (the latter two eventually merged)—were no more than a 15-minute walk away.


Lest one conclude that this was a district of great piety—Sands Street notwithstanding—recall the old cliché about Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. This was still the era of “national parishes,” when each ethnic group worshipped in a church of its own. Vinegar Hill started out Irish—the name recalls the Battle of Vinegar Hill during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. By 1900 the area was drawing a vibrant immigrant mix of Italians, Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians. The groups mixed to some degree, but always with a note of tribal wariness and suspicion. Mostly they mingled, prayed and mated with their own kind, as humans have been doing since the dawn of time.

For these strangers in a strange land, the church was as much a cultural sanctuary as a place of worship. Lithuanians were not warmly received at the two Irish churches—St. Ann (above) and St. Edwards—so they built St. George (pictured below), where Italians were tolerated but mass was in Lithuanian. The nearest Italian church was St. Michael the Archangel at Lawrence and Tillary Streets. As the hub of old downtown’s Italian community, crowds would gather there every August to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption (“with the enthusiasm of their race,” snarked the Brooklyn Eagle). When urban renewal forced St. Michael to close in 1942, the Diocese merged its congregation with that of St. Edwards—a move that went smoothly only because the original parishioners were mostly gone. The twin-towered Church of St. Michael and St. Edmund, as it was rechristened, was one of only two buildings left when the neighborhood was razed for a Navy Yard housing complex—today NYCHA’s Ingersoll and Walt Whitman Houses.


The Romanesque structure is today the only of the four original Catholic churches still standing, though its days are numbered (it was shuttered in 2010). Religious architecture is vulnerable in a secularizing society, and churches and temples are notoriously difficult candidates for conversion or adaptive reuse. Stories of redemption—like the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston or the historic synagogue on Norfolk Street operated as an arts and event space by the Angel Orensanz Foundation—are rare.

The oldest of the group, St. Ann’s, came down in 1992, replaced by a parking lot. The building was completed on the eve of the Civil War, its first Mass celebrated on Christmas Day, 1860—155 years ago this week. The modest Gothic structure was designed by Patrick C. Keely, an Irish-born architect and Brooklyn resident who created some 700 churches for working-class parishes up and down the eastern seaboard. Among his many commissions were Boston’s colossal Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the largest Catholic church in New England, and the St. Joseph Church at 1802 Tulane Avenue in New Orleans, a century-old landmark in the middle of the gleaming new LSU Health Sciences campus. A rare Keely residence is the William B. Cronyn house at 271 9Th Street in Park Slope.

St. George, with its idiosyncratic stepped façade, survived at 203 York Street until 2007. It was evidently razed by the same developer who toppled St. Ann, this time for a 33-unit condominium complex. Perhaps the two saints conspired to cast a spell on the site, for the project was hexed from the start: the developer ran afoul of the Department of Buildings for demolition violations; construction was delayed for years. When the units finally came on the market in 2011, sales were weak—the troubled Farragut Houses across the street were blamed. The building was eventually sold and converted to rental apartments.



Zoom in on Google Maps, satellite view, to the block bounded by York, Jay, Front and Bridge Streets in DUMBO and you will see a little mortarboard ghost floating sadly in the middle of a vast parking lot. It says Public School 7. It is wrong. The school did once occupy part of the block—the southeast corner—but shut down decades ago and vanished from this world around 1990. Somebody’s database—Google’s or more likely the Department of Education’s—needs updating.


Public School 7 was a fixture at 141 York Street for well over a century, set in a dense block of industrial buildings that included the original Boorum and Pease plant, makers of the ledger books that once ran American business (still available under the Esselte Pendaflex name). Designed by James W. Naughton, buildings superintendent for the Brooklyn Board of Education, the school opened in 1882.  In his History of Brooklyn (1884), Henry Stiles described the new building as “one of the best . . . ever erected for school purposes in this country—a structure to which the City can point with justifiable pride.”  Expanded in 1907 (the neoclassical building on left in photo below), it was a place of discipline and order in one of the roughest parts of New York City. A 1908 report of the People’s University Extension Society (Jacob Riis, board member), notes lectures that year, in English and Italian, on the prevention of childhood diseases. Al Capone was a pupil at the time.


In late 1988, when I took the photos further down on this page, the school had long been shuttered, but was being rehabilitated for housing under the auspices—I believe—of the Brooklyn Union Gas Cinderella program. On a follow-up visit not long after I was shocked to find the building gone. Evidently the entire block was acquired around 1990 by the Watchtower organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, still among the largest property owners in downtown Brooklyn. The group leveled the block not long afterward, including this little gem (notwithstanding its listing on the National Register of Historic Places). Its been a parking lot ever since, sealed behind a corrugated steel fence topped with concertina wire.


The block just south of York Street here, where the above photo was taken, was blown out decades earlier by Robert Moses to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Only a single structure survived the Mosiach onslaught—an industrial building at the corner of York and Bridge Streets trimmed with colorful glazed terracotta. Erected c. 1909 by the Thomson Water Meter Company, it was later famous as the source of Eskimo Pies, the beloved ice-cream treat of a generation of Brooklyn kids.

As for the vast block that was once home to Public School 7 (officially 85 Jay Street)—its been called “the last great site in DUMBO,” with nearly 900,000 square feet of buildable space and a price tag that could run north of $350 million. The property, one of the most valuable and sought-after on the east coast, finally went on the market earlier this month.



One of the distinguishing features of brownstone Brooklyn are the ponderous cast-iron railings, gates and balustrades that adorn its elegant Victorian row houses. Cast iron, as the name suggests, is made using molds into which liquid iron is poured. Though now associated with some of the priciest homes in town, cast iron became popular because it was a cheap alternative to wrought iron—iron smelted slowly at low temperature and “wrought” by hammer blows to purge impurities and give it shape. Most architectural hardware prior to the 1860s—hinges, pulls, latches, shutter dogs—was made in this way, often by village blacksmiths of the sort immortalized by Longfellow.

Cast iron, smelted more rapidly at higher temperature, contains more carbon and other impurities than wrought iron, and is much more brittle as a result—it will literally shatter if struck hard enough with a hammer. But, easily poured into molds, cast iron enabled the mass production of a wide variety of architectural details—including entire building facades, like those pioneered by James Bogardus in lower Manhattan. Molded into forms massive enough to mimic stone or wood, cast iron did much to encourage the ornamental excesses of the Victorian age. It soon evolved an aesthetic all its own, yielding metalwork the village smithy could hardly have imagined—elephantine banisters on Park Slope brownstones, for example, or Samuel Yellin’s fantastic Neptune-and-sea monster railings around the Dakota on Central Park West (manufactured by Hecla Iron Works of Williamsburg).


If cast iron is the signature metal of brownstone Brooklyn, that of New York’s later neighborhoods has long been wrought iron. This should really read “wrought” iron, for it is not the hand-hammered true wrought iron of old, but cold-rolled or “mild” steel available to the trade in a variety of standardized bars, straps and rods. Strong and highly malleable—it has a relatively low carbon content—the new metal was cheaper and more versatile than cast iron, and could be easily be fabricated into railings, fences, gates and grills.  Exterior metalwork of this kind, universally—and inaccurately—called wrought iron, became popular throughout the city after World War II, as advances in welding technology reduced fabrication costs. It was an affordable way to secure property against threats real and imagined. By the 1970s, wrought-iron fences, gates and window grilles—typically painted black or white—were as much a part of the outerborough streetscape as potted geraniums or London plane trees.


In the last decade or so a new type of architectural metal—shiny stainless steel—has spread through the boroughs, one reflective of the city’s ever-changing demographics. Wrought iron fabricators of the 1970s were often Italian; those working in stainless steel are almost always Chinese—typically from Fujian or Guangdong provinces. The earlier metalcrafters developed something of a outerborough vernacular—rich in twisted bars and strap-iron arabesques. Their stainless contemporaries, on the other hand, have imported an aesthetic straight from China. Anyone who has spent time in Brooklyn and Queens knows the look—gleaming steel grilles, gates, handrails and security doors constructed of tubular stock, round or rectangular, and punctuated with chrome or polished brass finial orbs, roundels and linked diamonds. Travel to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin or any other Chinese city and you’ll see much the same thing. Globalization is literally at the garden gate.

Given these roots, it’s no surprise that stainless steel was initially limited to New York’s Chinese neighborhoods. But it is spreading fast, and for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is price. As with so many things these days, low Chinese labor costs—both in China and among fabricators here—have made what was once a lux material newly affordable. It is also relatively maintenance free. Cast and wrought iron requires repainting every few years; stainless steel only needs to be wiped clean to maintain a mirror-like finish. There is also the bling factor. Gary Higbee of the 
Steel Institute of New York suggests that the popularity of exterior stainless metalwork is a function of the decade-long rage for stainless kitchen appliances.

The geography of stainless steel is a study in itself. Fabricators are mostly located in major outerborough Chinatowns—around Sunset Park in Brooklyn and, especially, in Flushing, Queens, where they operate (appropriately enough) in the shadow of the Unisphere, the borough’s towering stainless symbol of global unity. Chinese fabricators I’ve spoken too said that half their customers are African-American homeowners, about 30 percent Chinese and the balance white or Latino, with the folks from the former Soviet Union especially well represented. My own sidewalk surveys suggest popularity across a broad spectrum of class and ethnicity. In some sections of Brooklyn—East Flatbush, Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst—almost every block has two or three stainless jobs. The metal is almost wholly absent in the older, gentrified sections of the city.


Of course, not everyone is happy about the newcomers to the metal scene. The city’s older fabricators, who have seen a good chunk of their business vanish, charge that Chinese companies can sell steel on the cheap because they grossly underpay their workers. They also quibble about the quality of the steel and the way it is used. As one Brooklyn worker bluntly put it, “In the industry we call this stuff ‘stainless crap’.” Homeowners are often seduced by the shine of stainless, he said, and fail to understand that the material may not even be all that durable; cheap tubular stock, for example, often rusts from the inside out. According to him, low-end fabricators fuse steel with “tack” welds, rather than stronger full-bead welds. My own observations in China suggest he may be right—metalwork just two or three years ago has not aged well, the polished surfaces dulled now, welded joints each encircled by a halo of rust. For the inquisitive urbanist there is a simple trick to test, as it were, the mettle of the metal: “If a magnet sticks to a stainless gate or fence,” says Higbee, “then it’s not a high grade or austenitic steel, and will not have the corrosion resistance that people typically purchase stainless for.” As Thomas Devine of UC Berkeley explained in a 2006 Scientific American piece, the reasons “are quantum-mechanical in nature.” I’ll let him explain . . .





I have been working with one of my students here at Cornell, Kaustubh Laddha, to create a 3D digital model of the long-vanished Gerritsen tide mill in southern Brooklyn.  Built in the late 17th century on the banks of the Strome Kill (Gerritsen Creek in Marine Park), the mill was powered by seawater penned at high tide behind a rock dam and released as needed past the drive wheel.  It was one of the earliest industrial buildings in New York State, and operated well into the 1890s.  According to some accounts it was used by Washington’s troops during the Revolution and commandeered by British regulars under Lord Cornwallis during the Battle of Brooklyn.


Tragically, this extraordinary landmark was destroyed by an arsonist on the night of September 4, 1935.  It nearly made it to safety, as the mill was being restored at the time by Parks Department architects Aymar Embury II and H. B. Guillan.  We are using their plans and sections to construct the model.  Though nothing remains of the mill itself, the tidal dam can still be seen at low tide just below Burnett Street at Avenue V.  It is clearly visible on GoogleEarth or in the photo below that I took from my UAV last year.  I will post images of our completed model when its done.




00093_mn_14allbrex20078-t96ddr-999x1024PHOTO: JOHN TAMBASCO

This photo of downtown Brooklyn was taken c. 1955 looking northeast from Pearl Street to the stub of the old Myrtle Avenue elevated at Jay Street—future site of NYU-Poly (now NYU Tandon School of Engineering).  The land in foreground has just been cleared as part of the vast Brooklyn Civic Center urban renewal project.  The shadow on ground to the right is being cast by one of the few survivors—375 Pearl Street, an art-deco gem that was built for Brooklyn Law School and is today the Brooklyn Friends School (photographer was standing about here).

The large building on the right is now NYU’s Rogers Hall.  It was built by the American Safety Razor Company, a cornerstone of industrial Brooklyn and one of the city’s largest employers.  The company relocated to Virginia in 1954 after repeated labor strikes and threats of condemnation for the Civic Center.  It was one of scores of manufacturers to leave town during the Wagner years (1954-1965), a period in which New York City lost a staggering 200,000 jobs.

One MetroTech Center now occupies the block on Jay Street to the right of this view.  The arrow in the ad on the side of the building (meant for riders on the vanished el) points down to about where the entrance to the Jay Street-Metrotech subway station (A, C, F trains) is today.  The parked cars at left are on Myrtle Avenue, where a pedestrian walkway now runs between Adams and Jay Streets by the Marriott hotel.  The two industrial buildings in the photo are extant, as may be seen in Google Streetview here.  This slide photo was taken by John Tambasco using a Rolleiflex Automat K4A (Collection of Thomas J. Campanella).


Marie H. Tilyou (1897-1977) was the daughter of the legendary Coney Island showman, George C. Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park.  She showed an early talent for drawing, winning gold and silver prizes for paintings as a student at Adelphi College in 1915-1916.  Encouraged by Reginald Marsh, who later painted scenes of Steeplechase, she studied painting with George Luks (1867-1933), one of Ashcan School artists who rejected the academic formalism of the American Renaissance and chose to paint instead scenes of quotidian life on the streets of New York City.

Luks was a colorful character himself.  He was born in Williamsport and studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Europe, later working as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press and the New York World.  In Philadelphia he became part of an small group of artists–including William Glackens and John Sloan–mentored by Robert Henri, all of whom later moved to New York City and formed the core of the urban-realist Ashcan School.  A Falstaffian figure, “Lusty Luks” claimed to be a prizefighter and football player.  He drank copious amounts of beer, and was said to have covered the Spanish American War from a barstool in Havana.  Luks ended his days in a manner tragically fitting for a chronicler of the streets–he died in a doorway after being beaten in a barroom brawl.

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This work by Tilyou, titled “Chloe,” is strongly evocative of both the style of the Ashcan School and its penchant for depicting ordinary folk subjects.  The painting was evidently part of a group show decades ago at the Brooklyn Museum, exactly when I am not yet sure.  The identity of the subject, perhaps a West Indian market girl, is equally a mystery.  Works of any kind by Marie Tilyou are exceedingly rare; my extensive searches on the Internet have revealed no traces of any other painting or drawing by her.  I recently acquired “Chloe” from Timothy Cobb in Milwaukee.  I am glad she and her portraitist are back home after so many years.

Unfortunately, Marie Tilyou never pursued her budding art career.  Instead she took over the helm of the family business, working closely with my uncle, Jimmy Onorato, on the daily management and operation of Steeplechase Park.  She lived in an extraordinary apartment at 35 Prospect Park West, an Emery Roth building erected in 1929 on the site of George C. Tilyou’s old Romanesque mansion.

Marie Tilyou later raised the ire of many in Brooklyn when she decided to permanently close the park in 1964.  She sold the grounds to Fred C. Trump, father of “The Donald” and a real-estate mogul in his own right.  Trump erected some 27,000 homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn during his career.  In the 1960s he set his sights on Coney Island, opening 3,800-apartment Trump Village in 1963 and acquiring the Tilyou property two years later.

In an effort to ward off an attempt by the city to landmark the Victorian glass-and-steel Pavilion of Fun, Trump hosted a “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony” on September 21, 1966.  At it, bikini-clad models led guests in heaving bricks through the windows of the historic structure.  A few weeks later Trump razed the entire building, an act of vandalism that—along with the demolition of Ebbet’s Field and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard—seemed to herald the end of Brooklyn’s golden age.  Only the parachute jump remained, today a beloved a symbol of Brooklyn–our Eiffel Tower.  The Steeplechase site remained empty and windswept until a stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones opened on in 2001, bringing laughter back to this storied stretch of sand.


I wrote the lead essay in the latest publication from the Design Trust for Public Space, Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities, the result of a two-year collaborative study that began with a Cornell AAP/NYC studio led by Bob Balder.  My piece, “The Spatial Ecology of the New York Elevated,” can be downloaded here; the beautifully illustrated book is available for purchase in hardcopy or PDF from the Trust.