May Mayhem MAGIC
Password is: Astor Barber

Walking 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 - 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 - If you are new to the MAGIC GARDEN and don't know what I'm talking about, click here 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.

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