“Banana Docks, New York” c. 1906. Via The Library of Congress
If you’ve ever grabbed a bushel of bananas at your corner bodega, then you’ve nabbed a few of the 20 million bananas distributed around NYC every week. Today, our bananas dock at small piers in Red Hook, or, more often, make the journey by truck from Delaware. But, from the late 19th century until well into the 20th, New York was a major banana port, and banana boats hauled their cargo to the city’s bustling Banana Docks on the piers at Old Slip.
Surveying that cargo in August 1897, The New York Times wrote that the banana trade thrived in New York year-round, but the bulk of bananas hit the five boroughs between March and September. “They are brought to New York in steamers, carrying from 15,000 to 20,000 bunches…There is quite a fleet of small steamers engaged almost exclusively in the banana trade, and during the busy season many more steamers of greater size are employed.”
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“Harlem Street Scene Showing Local Businesses,” 1939, Photographer: Sid Grossman, Street Scenes Collection, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
“A Ballad for Harlem,” the new exhibit now on view at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, explores the history of the neighborhood and celebrates Black placemaking in 20th and 21st century America. The exhibit uses photographs, manuscripts, objects, art and sculpture from the Schomburg’s collection to revisit “Harlem’s places, people, and moments—both known and underrepresented—that capture the realities of community and hardship experienced by Black Americans.” Ahead, hear from curator Novella Ford to learn more about the show.
Map of the Western Canadian Fur Trade, ca. 1750-1759. The North American Fur Trade Began with French Merchants in Canada. Via NYPL Digital Collections
The fur trade has such deep roots in New York City that the official seal of the City of New York features not one but two beavers. Fur was not only one of the first commodities to flow through the port of New York, helping to shape that port into one of the most dynamic gateways the world has ever known, but also, the industry had a hand in building the cityscape as we know it. John Jacob Astor, the real estate tycoon whose New York holdings made him the richest man in America, began as an immigrant fur trader. Later, as millions of other immigrants made the city home, many would find their way into the fur trade, once a bustling part of New York’s sprawling garment industry. Today, as the nation’s fashion capital, New York City is the largest market for furs in the United States.
A new bill sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson could change that. Aimed at protecting animals from cruelty, the bill would ban the sale of new fur garments and accessories, but allow for the sale of used fur and new items made out of older repurposed furs. The measure has drawn impassioned criticism from a diverse set of opponents, particularly African American pastors who point out the cultural importance of furs within the black community, and Hasidic rabbis, who worry that wearing traditional fur hats would make Hassidic men vulnerable to hate crimes. And those in the fur industry fear the loss of livelihoods and skilled labor. After prompt pushback, Johnson said he plans to rework the bill to make it more fair to furriers. But given New York’s current debate around fur, we thought we’d take a look at the long history of the city’s fur trade.
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A man wearing a fez selling drinks in Little Syria in the early 1900s, via Wiki Commons
Three structures on Lower Manhattan’s Washington Street–St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church at 103 Washington Street, The Downtown Community House at 105-107 Washington Street, and the block’s sole surviving tenement at 109 Washington Street--are the last standing architectural vestiges of the once-thriving community of Little Syria. The area served as home to immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Moravia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, Germany and Ireland that flourished on the Lower West Side in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Before that surviving history is lost, local preservationists are calling for the structures to become part of a mini historic district, citing a “landmarks emergency.”
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Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York outside 54 Pearl Street on opening day. Taken from Broad Street facing east. 1907. From the archives at Fraunces Tavern Museum. Courtesy of the Fraunces Tavern Museum
Fraunces Tavern is breaking out the champagne this year to celebrate its 300th birthday. Called “the oldest standing structure in Manhattan,” the building you see today at the corner of Broad and Pearl Streets owes much to 20th-century reconstruction and restoration, but the site has a storied and stately past. In fact, any toasts delivered to mark the Tavern’s tri-centennial will have to stack up against George Washington’s farewell toast to his officers, delivered in the Tavern’s Long Room, on December 4, 1783.
Named for Samuel Fraunces, the patriot, spy, steward, and gourmand, who turned the old De Lancey Mansion at 54 Pearl Street into 18th century New York’s hottest watering hole, Fraunces Tavern connects New York’s proud immigrant history with its Dutch past, Revolutionary glory, maritime heritage, and continuous culinary prowess. Dive into the building’s unparalleled past and discover secrets and statesmen, murder and merriment – all served up alongside oysters as big as your face.
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It’s Fleet Week, and New York is awash in sailors. If you’re moved by all the festivities and want to get in on the maritime merriment, there are sites exploring New York’s links to the sea throughout all five boroughs. From barges to schooners to yachts to dry docks, here are 10 sites where you can celebrate New York’s seafaring spirit.
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Casino Roof Garden, 1899 via NYPL Digital Collections
How many summer evenings have you spent at a rooftop bar? While the rooftop bar was indeed born and bred in New York City, it’s nothing new. Even before New York was a city of skyscrapers, denizens of Gotham liked to take their experiences to vertical extremes. And when it comes to partying, New Yorkers have been conquering new heights, drink in hand, since 1883. That year, impresario Rudolf Aronson debuted a roof garden on the top of his newly built Casino Theater on 39th Street and Broadway. The rooftop garden was soon a Gilded Age phenomenon, mixing vaudeville and vice, pleasure and performance, for well-heeled Bon-Vivants who liked to spend their summers high above the sweltering streets.
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New York’s famous 369th (Old 15th) Infantry Regiment arrives home from France. Via the National Archives
In the earliest hours of May 15, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts of the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black American unit serving under French command in World War I, were keeping guard over a frontline trench in France’s Argonne Forest, about 115 miles east of Paris. Suddenly, two-dozen German soldiers charged out of the pitch-black no-man’s-land. Despite being stabbed 21 times and shot at least twice, Johnson killed four German soldiers, repelled the other 20, and saved his injured comrade Roberts from capture, using little more than a nine-inch bolo knife. Days later, the French Army stood at attention as Johnson and Roberts became the first Americans ever awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor. Johnson’s metal included a Golden Palm, for extraordinary valor.
Johnson and Robert’s decorations were the first of 171 individual Croix de Guerre medals awarded to members of the Harlem Hellfighters. By the war’s end, the Croix would be awarded to the unit as a whole, in recognition of its incredible contribution to the war effort: The Hellfighters spent a stunning 191 days at the Front, more than any other American unit. In that time, they never lost a trench to the enemy or a man to capture. Instead, they earned the respect of both allies and enemies, helped introduce Jazz to France, and returned home to a grateful city where hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out to welcome home 3,000 Hellfighter heroes in a victory parade that stretched from 23rd Street and 5th Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox.
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“They’re off!” The NC-1, NC-3 and NC- 4 begin their journey across the Atlantic May 8th, 1919. Via the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Did you know that the world’s first Transatlantic flight took off from the Rockaway Naval Air Station on May 8th, 1919? The plane, a US Navy Seaplane NC-4, not only departed from the Rockaways but also was assembled there. The NC-4 was one of three planes that vied to be the first across the Atlantic. The NC-1 and NC-3 started out alongside the NC-4 that day in the Rockaways. The planes set course for Plymouth England, and the NC-4 proved victorious, making landfall there on May 31, 1919, after a whopping 57 hours and 16 minutes in the air.
The Hunterfly Road Houses, part of the Center, via Wiki Commons
The Weeksville Heritage Center is dedicated to documenting, preserving and interpreting the history of free African American communities in central Brooklyn and beyond. Built on the site of Weeksville, once the second-largest free black community in Antebellum America, the center maintains the landmarked Hunterfly Road Houses, which are the last standing historical remnants of that remarkable community, and mounts exhibitions, installations, and community programs. But rising operational costs have left the Center in a precarious financial position, and without support, the organization may have to close its doors as early as July. To meet its short-term operating costs, the Weeksville Heritage Center has launched a crowd-funding campaign in the hopes of raising at least $200,000 by June 30th.