is: Astor Barber
past Astor Hair Stylist today, at 2 Astor Place, you will be immersed
in an oppressively odorous cloud of jasmine, Egyptian musk and sandalwood
from the ever present incense stand outside. Walking past Astor Barber
in the 80s, you would have wanted to buy multicolored socks from the multitude
of sock purveyors on that strip. Always three for $5. Every color and
shade imaginable. Thick cotton, not enough elastic, but form fitting nonetheless.
I'm just now wearing through my last pair of tie-dyed tube socks. You
would have walked past many a folk selling freshly stolen goods and apparel
from a recent local apartment theft, mixed in with used toothbrushes,
half eaten sandwiches, and individual pages from Hustler magazine, next
to National Geographic. I got a great leather jacket for a mere pittance.
You might very well have been wearing an oversized men's long wooly coat,
extremely narrow at the bottom pants, and some thick soled black shoes.
If this isn't you being described, be creative. Why not get a whole group
to go to Astor Barber and request one of the following from the days of
yore: a mohawk; really long bangs to one side, with or without spike (a
la Flock of Seagulls) and a closely shaved back of neck; a long tail.
Yes, a very very long tail. Braided. Now while my unruly locks were never
bent/straightened into submission by the razor happy stylists, there's
no better time than now to get a graffiti tag, basketball, Pope, big rat,
West Side Stadium, etc., shaved into the side or back of my scalp. Maybe
we can even get our photographs placed in the window with our spanking
new dos. While the seediness factor on this strip is long gone, Astor
Barber remains. It's been owned by the Vezza family since 1940.
In 1748, what is now Lafayette and Astor Place, was New York City's first
botanical garden, established by a Swiss physician, Jacob Sperry, who
farmed flowers and hothouse plants. A mile from what was then the edge
of the city, Sperry's gardens became the destination of weekend strollers. In
1804 Sperry sold his gardens to John Jacob Astor, who then leased the
property to a Frenchman named Delacroix, who transformed the property
into the fashionable Vauxhall Garden, where New Yorkers could sniff flowers
as well as eat, drink, listen to music (just like the buskers playing
at the big black Cube in the 80s), and view fireworks and theatrical events.
By 1825, with real estate values skyrocketing on nearby Bond, Bleecker,
and Great Jones streets, Astor cut the street, reducing the garden to
half its size, which created Lafayette Place. Astor realized a great profit
for the lots here, named LaGrange Terrace. Four of the original nine “mansions”
remain as Colonnade Row - they're those Greek Revival townhouses housing
Blue Man Group that you'd kill to live in. The other five were destroyed
in 1902 to make way for an annex to Wanamaker’s Department Store.
In honor of Shakespeare's birthday, which is sometime around now, let's
learn a little about one of the most infamous associations with Astor
Place - the Astor Riot on May 10, 1849. Years after heated anti-English
sentiment, NYC witnessed one of the most violent confrontations in the
city's history - an angry mob of Irish and German workers and nativists
(that's us folks!) descended upon the Astor Place Opera House during a
staging of Macbeth, to protest the appearance of the English Shakespearean
actor, William Charles Macready, a fancy aristocrat who was thought to
look down upon Americans as "boorish and uncultured." Us? The
protesters were there in support of Edwin Forrest, an American-born Shakespearean
actor who was fiercely patriotic, epitomized the democratic ideals of
America and did not want to be dominated by elite outsiders. Hmmm, sounds
like the MAGIC GARDEN. Forrest was the first American-born actor to become
an international celebrity and by the mid-nineteenth century was earning
$2,000 a week. And he was idolized.
Here's how it started - the Astor Place Opera House was built in 1847
by a group of philanthropists at the juncture of Broadway and the Bowery.
Broadway was a playground for the wealthy. The Bowery was lined with saloons
and boarding houses. Remember a few years ago? Sigh. There was dress code
at the Astor Place Opera, white gloves and silk vest, which offended the
locals - in particular, the "Bowery B'hoys," a gang of Irish
and German working class toughs who felt that such elitist standards violated
the basic principles of the American democracy, and they pretty much hated
the English and all things aristocratic. The Opera House served as a divisive
emblem, which pitted the leisure class against the laboring class. One
look at the Bowery today and this schism is still frighteningly apparent.
On May 7, 1849, the evening when the three leading theaters in the city
presented Macbeth, the Astor Place Opera House was packed with Forrest
supporters, who interrupted Macready the Brit's performance with yelling,
throwing of rotten eggs, potatoes, and chairs, and all around misbehaving.
After his performance, Macready announced that he would leave the city.
But the upper class community of NYC was outraged and a petition decrying
the antics of the Forrest supporters was signed by 48 prominent New Yorkers,
including Washington Irving and Herman Melville (who is a distant relative
of musician and vegan Moby, born Richard Melville Hall) and sent to Macready
as well as local newspapers. Macready was promised protection and support
and so he agreed to perform. Signs were posted around the city announcing
his appearance in Macbeth on the night of May 10, 1849, but some of the
rowdy Bowery B'hoys also posted notices, urging a protest during Macready's
performance. In preparation, a police force of 250 was stationed in and
around the Opera House. The doors and windows of the theater were closed
and barricaded, and the National Guard was put on alert.
And so, on May 10, a volatile crowd of 10,000 and 15,000 people assembled
in the streets outside the Astor Place Opera House. They began throwing
stones and broken pieces of brick at the police outside, and as the police
took refuge inside, the mob began hurling stones at the windows, destroying
the flimsy barricades, and hitting the audience. The mob dispersed only
when the National Guardsmen opened fire. It is said that 23 people died,
and over 100 were wounded, including 50 to 70 police officers. It was
the first time that American troops had ever fired on Americans. New York
City and the nation were devastated. In the days following the Riot, rallies
were held in Washington Square Park to protest the killings. The National
Guard troops kept vigil at the Astor Place Opera House to prevent further
violence. For three days after, the city remained under martial law (that's
a state in which all civil laws, rights and liberties are suspended and
the military has direct rule). Sort of like that comforting feeling we
had during the RNC, when we were greeted on our daily commute by stern-faced,
gigantic-gunned toting, camouflaged-clad youngsters on the subway and
throughout the streets, all in the name of patriotism.
Remembered as the site of a massacre, the Astor Place Opera house never
recovered. In 1854, the building was converted into the Mercantile Library
Building, and then was home to the Chinese consulate in the 1920s. Later
the District 65 Building, which housed the National Writer's Union for
more than 50 years. I think it's now the highly respectable Kinkos and
Starbucks. Starbuck was the name of the first mate in Melville's Moby
Dick. Melville spent 19 years as a customs inspector on the New York docks.
And this building, if it's not already, will soon be available if you
want to spend 4 million dollars on a condo.
Pretty please, take a moment to check out Machomer - http://www.machomer.com/
click on “Enter MacHomer website” at bottom of page,
then click on AUDIO. It’s this one guy doing Macbeth in the voices
of the Simpson’s characters – really worthwhile.
Don't forget the Great Saunter, 32 mile walk around Manhattan's rim, will
be on Saturday, May 7 - http://www.shorewalkers.org.
If you are new to the MAGIC GARDEN and don't know what I'm talking about,
for details. We are meeting at the ungodly hour of 7:15am at the sign-up
table at the corner of Fulton & South Streets near the South Street
Seaport. If you are planning on joining, email me so I know to look out
for you. Wear good shoes, bring sunblock, water and plenty of snacks/lunch.