An illustration of the first Labor Day parade, via Wiki Commons
Though Labor Day has been embraced as a national holiday–albeit one many Americans don’t know the history of–it originated right here in New York City. The holiday is a result of the city’s labor unions fighting for worker’s rights throughout the 1800’s. The event was first observed, unofficially, on Tuesday, September 5th, 1882, with thousands marching from City Hall up to Union Square. At the time, the New York Times considered the event to be unremarkable. But 135 years later, we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of every September as a tribute to all American workers. It’s also a good opportunity to recognize the hard-won accomplishments of New York unions to secure a better workplace for us today.
Keep reading for the full history
Boynton’s Bicycle Railroad, via Wiki Commons
As Labor Day draws near and New Yorkers run to squeeze a few more beach days into the end of the summer, packed trains and ferries carry crowds to the city’s sandy shores. But, beachgoers of yore weren’t simply piling onto the Q train to get out to Coney Island. They reached the southern tip of Brooklyn via a much more zany (or visionary?) mode of conveyance: Boynton’s Bicycle Railroad. In the summer of 1890, Boynton’s Bicycle, so named because it featured two rails, one beneath the train and one above it, shuttled passengers between Gravesend and Coney Island via an abandoned section of the Sea Beach and Brighton Railroad.
The Story Rolls on This Way
Dead Horse Bay is a small body of water in Brooklyn that got its name from the horse rendering plants that were on the former Barren Island in Jamaica Bay near the shoreline of Flatlands. In the late 1850s, Barren Island was the site of the largest dump in New York City, fed by barges carrying garbage and animal remains. Factories on the island used the carcasses of horses, which were put in large vats and boiled until the fat could be removed, for use in fertilizer, glue, and oils. The bones of the horses were then chopped up and dumped into the water. Starting in 1930, the island also became the site of the first municipal airport (Floyd Bennett) after the city filled in marshland to connect it to the mainland.
The last horse rendering factory on the island closed in 1935 and in 1936, the island’s final 400 residents were evicted to make way for the creation of the Belt Parkway. The City continued using the area as a garbage dump until 1953 when the landfill was capped. Since 1972, the area surrounding Dead Horse Bay has been part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area. We joined Robin Nagle, NYC Department of Sanitation’s Anthropologist-in-Residence for an exclusive exploration of Dead Horse Bay earlier this year with the City Reliquary Museum and had a chance to speak with her about this mysterious area, which is strewn with glass bottles, fragments of centuries-old horse bones, and mounds of trash.
Have a look around
Battle of Long Island, 1858 by Alonzo Chappel
242 years ago on August 27th, less than two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the largest battle of the Revolutionary War played out across Brooklyn. What was first known as the Battle of Long Island (Brooklyn was still just a small town at the time of the attack) was later dubbed the Battle of Brooklyn. On this summer day in 1776, The British took their troops from Staten Island to stealthily attack George Washington and his Continental Army at their Brooklyn camp. Greatly outnumbered in size and skill, Washington sent many of his soldiers on an escape route through Brooklyn Heights and across the foggy East River to Manhattan. To distract the British and buy the rest of the troops time, Washington also sent the entire 1st Maryland Regiment, known as the Maryland 400, on a suicide mission. All 400 soldiers from the regiment were killed in battle with the British, but the Continental Army made its escape and went on to win the war.
Not surprising since these harrowing events played out across a good portion of the borough, there are monuments, a museum, and plaques to commemorate it. And then there are popular Brooklyn locales—from Prospect Park to Green-Wood Cemetery—that you might not realize were former battlefields. After the jump, 6sqft rounds up the modern-day locations once crucial to the Battle of Brooklyn, with some tips on how to commemorate the event this weekend.
Getting to know a Son of Liberty, via Fraunces Tavern
The Sons of Liberty may be best known for the Boston Tea Party, but Fraunces Tavern, the Revolutionary-era watering hole and museum at 54 Pearl Street, is showcasing the group’s history in New York City. The new exhibit, Fear and Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty, opened on Wednesday, August 22nd in the Museum’s Mesick Gallery.
In 1765, New York’s Sons of Liberty began protesting the Stamp Act, and other measures they believed the King had no right to impose. Their active resistance to the trappings of British Rule makes for an exciting exhibition. The items on display, all culled from the Museum’s own collection, reveal the group’s pivotal role on the road to Revolution. Interactive features, like chests of Bohea tea, which you can sniff, help make visitors feel like a part of that story.
The revolution continues…
L’Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes at the New School in 1942, via France-Amerique
In 1937, the great German writer Thomas Mann suggested “To the Living Spirit” as a motto for the New School’s University in Exile. Since the Nazis had removed the same motto from the great lecture hall at the University of Heidelberg, the phrase would “indicate that the living spirit, driven from Germany, has found a home in this country,” and that home was on West 12th Street.
Between 1933 and 1945, The New School’s University in Exile offered asylum to more than 180 refugee scholars from fascist Europe. The exiled academics became the Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research and represented the largest contingent of refugee intellectuals in the United States. In the classroom, they made pioneering advances in the social sciences; in the war room, they advised the Roosevelt Administration on economic policy, war information, and espionage. Educating future Nobel Prize winners as well as future Oscar winners, they influenced American scholastic and cultural life to such a degree that even Marlon Brando remembered his émigré professors at the New School, “enriching the city’s intellectual life with an intensity that has probably never been equaled anywhere during a comparable period of time.”
More living and learning this way!
Google Street View of Federal-style rowhouses on VanDam Street
It’s an often-overlooked enclave with the largest concentration of Federal and Greek Revival style houses in New York City. Its origins can be traced back to historical figures as esteemed as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jacob Astor, but it’s just as deeply connected to Italian immigrants and radical 20th-century innovators. The most dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker will have trouble telling you if it’s in Greenwich Village, SoHo, or Hudson Square.
The tiny Charlton-King-VanDam neighborhood is, as its name would imply, located along charming Charlton, King, and VanDam Streets between Sixth Avenue and Varick Streets, with a little arm extending up the southernmost block of MacDougal Street just below Houston Street. It was only the fourth designated historic district in New York City when it was landmarked on August 16th, 1966, and for good reason.
Find out the full history
“Public squares, parks, and places in the City of New York.” Via NYPL Digital Collections.
Built to emulate Great Britain’s enviable squares, which were actually square, Manhattan’s public squares were created in the celebrated New York City tradition of being whatever they pleased–and definitely not square. According to the New York Daily News, Manhattan doesn’t have any actual squares at all: Lisa Keller, executive editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, said “Americans just call it a square if it’s bigger than a breadbox.” But those 40 squares from Madison to Foley, Herald and Greeley have been vital in defining the city’s public spaces; they were its first parks, and a predecessor to the granddaddy of all squares, Central Park.
Squares that shaped the city
Photo by 6sqft
It’s hard to miss the two floors of flashing, chili pepper light-adorned Indian restaurants on First Avenue and Sixth Street in the East Village. The origin of these two stacked eateries, though, is much more frequently overlooked, as is the fact that the neighborhood’s adjacent “Little India” is really more “Little Bengal.” New York’s main Bangladeshi community is often cited as being in Jackson Heights, which boasts a large South Asian population and a great representation of its diverse culture, including the beloved Patel Brothers grocery store. Less well known is that East New York also has a large Bangladeshi community, and in the 1990s, the East Village’s “Curry Row” worked to identify itself as Indian, a culture more Americans at the time were familiar with. Ahead, we look at the whole history and break down the best places to experience Bangladeshi culture in NYC.
New Amsterdam in 1671, via Wiki Commons
New York is the largest Latino city in the United States. Over 2.4 million New Yorkers, or nearly one third of the population, identify as Hispanic or Latino. The city’s thriving Latin community marks the most recent chapter in the history of Latin New York, which stretches over 400 years.
In the spring of 1613, Juan Rodriguez (also known as Jan Rodrigues), a free mixed-race Dominican man from Santo Domingo, became the first non-Native American person to live in what would become New York City. He arrived aboard a Dutch trading vessel, declined to leave with the rest of the crew, and stayed on until 1614, as a fur trader. Rodriguez’s settlement pre-dates the first settlers of New Amsterdam by a full 11 years, making him the first immigrant, the first black person, the first merchant, and the first Latino to live in New York City.
Learn more about Early Latin NY!