Secret passageways under Chinatown, remnants of a bygone Bowery beer hall, a rooftop film studio”¦Author David Freeland writes of these and more in his book, Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure. Freeland seeks to find continuity through history, using the lens of leisure activity in New York. He is more interested in what’s hidden and forgotten, the “fossils and impressions of former existences,” as he explained in a talk at Columbia GSAPP on November 19th.
Though a historian by practice, his process is more archeological than pedagogical. He says that “looking at discordant architectural and design related spots can give you clues to the history of the place.” His inherent curiosity led him to uncover the original roof of the Atlantic Garden beer hall on the Bowery, which by all accounts had been completely demolished. Looking up at the ceiling of a souvenir shop in Times Square, he noticed patterns that turned out to be the remnants of a once elaborately decorated automat (waiter free restaurants with vending machines) from the early 20th century. Most poignantly, none of the buildings he writes about are landmarked, despite the history behind them.
Here’s a look at a few locations from his book that you can check out:
Underground Passageway in Chinatown
On numbers 5-7 Doyers Street in Chinatown, the Chinese theater once stood on this curvilinear street. Folklore says that the obtuse angle of this street contributed to gang warfare, as rival gangs could approach each other from opposite ends of the street unseen. An underground escapeway leading from the theater to Chatham Square still exists, now populated by acupuncturists, feng shui and travel agencies. Actor Ah Foon was escorted through this tunnel in 1909 one night, knowing that his days were numbered after repeatedly taunting a rival gang in performances. He made it safely to his apartment but was shot on the landing in the middle of the night.
What to See: Enter on Doyers Street, between Pell St and the Bowery, from a doorway east of the yellow Co Co Fashion sign, descend through multiple staircases and wander along hallways until a staircase leads you out onto Chatham Square. Untapped pictures of this forthcoming…
The Atlantic Garden, 50 Bowery and 20-22 Elizabeth Street (backside)
The largest and most famous of the Bowery beer halls, this sumptuously decorated building opened in 1858. It had its own brewery, shooting gallery, an all female orchestra, a giant mechanical music box (the orchestrian) and movie screens. The battle over a Sunday liquor license lasted over forty years, with constant raids and arrests of bartenders, waiters and the owner himself. Despite all this, the Atlantic Garden was one of the more democratic sites in 1880s New York–a place for immigrant families (predominantly German and Italian, but there were even some Asians!) to escape the swelter of the tenements.
The clue for Freeland: the roof shape. From there, he discovered a 19th century stone projection off the roof.
What’s Left: On Elizabeth Street, now occupied by the Jing Fong Restaurant and the Cantoon Garden Restaurant. On Bowery, a row of jewelry stores.
How to Get There: N/Q/R/W/J/M/Z/6 trains to Chinatown
Ultimately, what is Freeland’s message? The epilogue encapsulates his wide-eyed, detective-like perspective. Not a strict preservationist, he wonders how history will be passed down when the physical signs disappear:
When future New Yorkers explore their neighborhoods, what will they see? Will they be able to trace history”¦by finding visual cues and investigating them? New Yorkers are a curious lot”¦The challenge they will face in the future is that exploring history becomes more difficult once the physical markers themselves are gone.
Read David Freeland’s book: Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure