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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

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Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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Free of One’s Melancholy Self

January 28, 2014 | by

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The Quaaludes featuring the DT’s album cover, 2011.

When Jordan Belfort—played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a truly masterful moment of full-body acting—wrenches himself from the steps of a country club into a white Lamborghini that he drives to his mansion, moviegoers, having already watched some two hours of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, are meant to be horrified. His addiction to quaaludes (and money, and cocaine, and sex, and giving motivational speeches) has rendered him not just a metaphorical monster but a literal one. He lunges at his pregnant wife and his best friend, played by Jonah Hill, and equally high; he smashes everything in his path, both with his body and with the aforementioned Ferrari. He gurgles and drools and mangles even monosyllabic words. He’s Frankenstein in a polo shirt.

But what of the movie’s glossier scenes? The one where Belfort and his paramour engage in oral sex while speeding down a highway? Where he and his friends and colleagues are on boats and planes and at pool parties totally free of the inhibitions that keep most of us adhering to the laws of common decency? What about the parts that look fun?

Everyone I spoke to post-Wolf (at least, everyone who liked it) rapturously praised Terence Winter’s absurd dialogue, DiCaprio’s magnetism, Scorsese’s eye for beautiful grotesquerie. Most of them also included a half-whispered, wide-eyed aside: What exactly are quaaludes, and where can we get some? Read More »

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Little Syria

September 17, 2013 | by

syrialede

“The Foreign Element in New York—The Syrian Colony,” c. 1895

“When one leaves the hurry and roar of lower Broadway and walks southward through narrow Washington-st., the average New-Yorker of Caucasian descent might easily believe he was in the Orient. A block to the east roar the trains of the elevated. A little further eastward are the rushing throngs of Broadway. In the midst of all this tumult and confusion is situated the quiet village of Ahl-esh-Shemal.”

And so, in 1903, the New-York Tribune endeavors to take its readers into Little Syria. Concentrated on Rector and Washington Streets in the lower parts of Manhattan, Little Syria in 1895 was home to an estimated three-thousand residents from modern-day Syria and Lebanon (nearly all Middle Eastern New Yorkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would be referred to as Syrian or Arab, regardless of religion), most of whom had fled persecution under increasingly harsh Ottoman rule. Missionaries, dispatched to the Holy Lands to spread the Christian gospel, told tales of a city made of opportunity, ready and waiting to receive immigrants dedicated to hard work and moral living.

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