On Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to see Alice Hoffman speak at the Tenement Museum in NYC. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman’s love story to New York City, past and present, and I thought I’d share a few of the many things she spoke of.
In 1911, the New York landscape was shifting. The world was shifting. Her research revealed that more horses were stolen in New York City that year than in all of the midwestern states combined. Coney Island was at its peak of seaside brilliance, with people flocking to the coast for dancing and magic. 1911 is also the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which claimed the lives of over a hundred young workers and drew attention to deplorable factory conditions across the country. In the same year, fire broke out at Coney Island’s Dreamland, sending lions into the streets of Brooklyn.
And in that haunting way Alice Hoffman presents her work, she shared a story she found in her research. Just as the fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, as workers realized that the doors and stairwells were locked and people jumped to the streets below, a young man and woman were seen kissing in the window.
When asked why fire features so prominently in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice responded: “Fire symbolizes rebirth and reinvention, and it was part of city life at that time.”
In a city as densely populated as New York, fire was as natural to the landscape as winter snow.
“New York is also where people go to reinvent themselves,” Alice said. It’s interesting to think the two should coexist.
Alice was also intrigued by the historic natural landscape. People used to oyster in the Hudson River. Fish were so thick and plentiful, people said, that you could walk across the river on them.
For those who think nature is lost in New York City, coyotes were spotted in Central Park just last year. Rockaway, Queens has a functioning mussel farm that filters pollutants from the water, and many mornings I wake up to the sound of owls outside my Brooklyn window.
Of the many historic venues Alice visited while researching, she sited the three below as her favorites:
McSorley’s Old Ale House opened in 1854 and is the oldest continuously operated saloon in New York City. The Irish potato blight chased the original owner, John McSorley, from Ireland to New York. It’s website boasts that everyone from Lincoln to Lennon have passed through McSorley’s doors, but women were only allowed to enter in 1970 after civil rights attorneys, Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow, took their case to the Supreme Court.
Cooper Union was founded by Peter Cooper. He wanted his school to be a political and cultural influencer for New York City and the United States as a whole and built the Great Hall to accommodate 900 guests for this purpose. In the early years of its opening, Cooper Union and the Great Hall made history when the unannounced presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was invited to speak by the Young Men’s Republican Union and accepted.
The first carousel was built in Coney Island in 1876, complete with hand-carved wooden horses. From 1888-1896, the Coney Island Elephant was the first sight to greet immigrants arriving in New York waters, even before the Statue of Liberty.
Just the day before, March 25, marked the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. As Alice spoke, images of old New York flickered past on the overhead screen.
“Some things change so radically, the only way to know them is through photographs.”
If you’d like to see Alice speak, she’ll be revisiting these topics at the Gotham Center (Elebash Recital Hall) on Tuesday, May 6 from 6:30pm – 8:00pm.