2011: The Year of the Anniversary

What connects Horace Greeley, Gypsy Rose Lee, the city’s first black police officer, the Manhattan street grid, City Hall, the New York Public Library building on Fifth Avenue and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire? Their centennials or bicentennials are being commemorated this year.

You might have missed what would have been Gypsy Rose Lee’s 100th birthday Jan. 8 (she performed at Minsky’s burlesque in the 1930s). But there’s still time to celebrate Horace Greeley’s 200th.

At 11 a.m. today, the birthday of Greeley, the eccentric editor of The New York Tribune, will be celebrated by some of his descendants at Greeley Square Park at West 32nd Street and Broadway. Greeley’s statue will be rededicated and students from Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua will present a tribute.

As for other anniversaries: on March 22, 1811, barely meeting a legislative deadline, a commission empowered by the state four years earlier to map Manhattan’s streets imposed the grid system that provided for 16 numbered or lettered avenues roughly paralleling the Hudson River (which is why side streets are not on an exact east-west axis) that would eventually define the city from 14th through 155th Streets.

Because the island is flanked by rivers, the original plan provided for few open spaces, but the commissioners were nonetheless prescient, acknowledging that with much of Manhattan north of Canal Street still farmland, “it may be a subject of merriment that the Commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.”

After overcoming fierce and sometimes violent responses from property owners, John Randel Jr., the city surveyor, said the plan would facilitate the “buying, selling and developing” of real estate.

On March 25, labor leaders and others will mark the centennial of the fire that broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory at Washington Place and Greene Street in Lower Manhattan. With exits locked by the owners or blocked by flames, 146 garment workers, mostly young women, died.

On May 23, the library will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its newly restored white marble flagship designed by Carrere & Hastings (and now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) and recognized worldwide by the two guardian lions sculpted by Edward Clark Potter.

At the 1911 opening ceremony, President William Howard Taft described the building as “a work of national importance” that would bring “within the grasp of the poorest citizen the opportunity for acquiring information on every subject of every kind.”

Mayor William J. Gaynor, meanwhile, presided on July 4, 1911, over the centennial celebration for City Hall, the marble French Renaissance building designed by John McComb Jr. and Joseph Francois Mangin and dedicated during the tenure of Mayor DeWitt Clinton on the site of a former almshouse, jail and whipping post.

On June 28, Samuel Battle, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound 28-year-old who lived in Clinton (now known as Hell’s Kitchen), began his duties as Greater New York’s first black police officer (two who served the former city of Brooklyn had been absorbed into the metropolitan force earlier).

Appointed by Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, Battle recalled:

My friends, and some that were not friends, said it was ridiculous: that I could never be appointed because of my color. But I said that what one could do another could, and was not willing to admit any inferiority. I stuck to it and got the appointment on my merits.

What a difference a century makes! In 1911, St. Patrick’s Day paraders doffed their traditional silk top hats and Coney Island’s phantasmagorical Dreamland burned to the ground.

Yet other traditions have lingered, including screaming headlines (literally: aldermen debated whether newsboys should be allowed to yell) and debates over preservation (whether to maintain Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, eventually razed in 1925), bridge tolls (they were removed that year on the Williamsburg Bridge), gun control (the Sullivan Law restricting handgun possession was passed) and mayoral control over the public school system.

Even then, New Yorkers were fickle about their mayor. A reader identified only as “Amicus” wrote The New York Times:

Only a short time ago, in August last, the papers throughout the land and some parts of Europe were loud in lauding Judge Gaynor as the greatest mayor New York City ever hard! What is wrong? Is it natural to believe that his Honor, at his age, could have so miraculously changed his whole demeanor and makeup in such a short while?

And Mayor Gaynor, was, at best, ambivalent about the press. Perhaps wistfully, he told a delegation from Georgia that in the South, the press “has to refrain from lying and scandalizing or they might have to answer for it on the street corner. It may be that that will have to come to pass here in the North before we get rid of some of the ruffians who have come into the press here.”

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