Tag: History

Santacon & New York’s Heritage

Santacon & New York's Heritage by Ari KellenHalloween’s over, and that means it’s time to start thinking about the next big holiday coming up: Thanksgiving Christmas.  While many American Christmas traditions remain the same, new ones have started to catch on in recent years: Krampus has become popular for its dark absurdity, parents love the elf on the shelf because it’s a fun way to convince your kids to behave, and Santacon has taken off because it offers people an excuse to wander around the street drunk.  In this annual mass gathering, which originated in San Francisco, people dressed in Santa costumes go on a parade, often accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol.  With various bars sponsoring the event, it’s evolved into a messy city-wide bar crawl, which has particularly caught on in New York City.  

Many New Yorkers hate the event, and there’s plenty to hate about unruly drunks crowding up your city.  In the Free Williamsburg blog, one post wrote with palpable disdain about it starting off in their backyard this year.  Yet even if it didn’t originate in New York, and even if many New Yorkers wish it didn’t exist, Santacon is actually the most New York event possible.  As an event that attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds who dress up like Santa and drink to excess, it incorporates several major aspects of early New York’s culture.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a look at the early history of New York, or more appropriately New Amsterdam.  

Even as Santa Claus has become a symbol of American consumerism (his modern-day appearance actually owes much to Coca-Cola ads meant to sell soda in the winter months), it’s a tradition that goes far beyond that.  St. Nicholas as a Christmas tradition originates with the Dutch, who brought it over with them when they colonized New York in the early 17th century (the name “Santa Claus” is actually a corruption of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”).  At that time, the English settlers in New England didn’t celebrate Christmas, and while those further south in the Chesapeake did, it was more a giant feast than anything else, and St. Nicholas was nowhere to be found.  Even though the Netherlands lost control of “New Netherland” not even 40 years after founding it, the settlers they brought over remained, incorporating aspects of their culture that extend far beyond hard-to-pronounce subway stations.  Among other things, the Dutch gave us banking, sledding, donuts, easter eggs, cookies, coleslaw, the word “boss”, ice skating and Santa Claus.  

The 17th-century Netherlands was the center of a major trade network that extended from Indonesia to the Baltic to Brazil.  It was also one of the few places in Europe at that time to uphold religious freedom, which attracted people of various backgrounds from around the world.  While the New Amsterdam colony was Dutch, only half of the settlers were actually of Dutch origin, and within 20 years of its founding 18 different languages were spoken there.  New Amsterdam was also the only free port in the region, which attracted visitors and settlers from the Americas and beyond who wanted to avoid tariffs.  The only other places in the New World at that time to promise religious freedom were Maryland and Rhode Island, neither of which ever reached that level of diversity; Maryland was mostly just a place for wealthy English Catholics to practice their religion without being bothered, and Rhode Island primarily served as a dumping ground for New Englanders who didn’t fit in with the Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  

Yet as outstandingly cosmopolitan as it was, New Amsterdam was still just a fur trading post in a remote corner of the world.  The Dutch have always liked to drink, and there was little else to do to pass the time in the North American wilderness.  There was roughly one tavern for every 20 people in New Amsterdam, ensuring that anybody could get a drink.  The majority of court cases in New Amsterdam were related to drunkenness in one way or another, whether it had to do with simple public drunkenness or a booze-fueled brawl that turned into a sword fight (yes, those happened quite a bit).  Even one of the colony’s first men of the cloth, Everardus Bogardus, was described as being seldom sober, and only got the funds to build a new church for the colony by convincing the its richest citizens to pledge money and building materials while they were blackout drunk.  New York’s drinking culture has remained alive and well in the past 390 years, facilitated in the modern era by a subway system that lets New Yorkers get home after a bender without having to get behind the wheel.

Now that we’ve looked at New York’s historic Dutch legacy, let’s look at the modern Santacon.  This is an event where people from throughout the New York Metropolitan area and beyond descend upon the five boroughs.  As one of the only free ports in the Western Hemisphere, New Amsterdam had a long history of attracting a diverse array of visitors from just about everywhere in the world.  The people who attend Santacon dress up, as the name implies, in Santa suits, honoring a tradition that’s delighted New Yorkers big and small since the Dutch brought it over 390 years ago.  And when these revelers get drunk, they’re honoring one of the oldest aspects of New York’s culture: its drinking culture.  It can be easy to hate on Santacon, and many complaints against it are completely valid (nobody wants a horde of red-and-white-clad fratboys drunkenly disrupting their Saturdays).  Yet even as you hate on it, it’s important to not forget the legacy to which it unwittingly pays homage.

New York Bars For History Buffs

INew York Bars for history buffs by Ari kellenn the past 400 years, New York has gone from a remote wilderness at the corner of the world, to a remote Dutch trading post at the corner of the world, to a major city in the 13 Colonies, to a bustling port in a fledgeling United States, to one of the most important and recognizable cities in the entire world.  There are plenty of places where you can get in touch with New York’s history; you could visit a museum or go to the New York Public Library.  But one of the best ways to enjoy history is with a good meal or a few rounds of drinks.  I recently came across an article that shares some of the best historic bars and restaurants in the city.  They had some great options here, but in my opinion the author missed a couple key ones.  Here’s what they had to say, with some additions from me:

Fraunces Tavern: Over 250 years old, Fraunces Tavern also operates as a museum and is registered as a national historic landmark.  It’s arguably the most historically significant place on the list; it briefly served as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution and was where peace negotiations with the British took place at the end of the war.  Today you can enjoy colonial-inspired pub fare alongside 200+ varieties of whiskeys, cocktails, ciders and craft beers in the same setting that the founding fathers did.

McSorley’s: When McSorley’s adopted the slogan “we were here before you were born”, they weren’t lying.  Established in 1854, this is one of the oldest continuously-running bars in all of New York City.  Covered with sawdust and mementos from its 160+ years of operation (none of which have been removed since 1910), McSorley’s prides itself on sticking to tradition and doing things the way they always did (they didn’t even let women in until the 1970s).  Staffed by surly Irish bartenders, it’s a cash-only establishment with an unabashedly simple and limited number of options: the food menu fits onto a small chalkboard, and your alcohol options are limited to either “light” or “dark” beer (according to legend, they also served whiskey for a brief period in the late 19th century, although it didn’t go well).  While it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, McSorley’s is an institution and an essential experience, particularly for those people interested in New York’s history.

One if by Land, Two if by Sea: Although it’s just around 43 years old, this place is situated within a carriage house built in 1767.  For those who can afford the pricey menu, it’s one of the romantic date spots in New York, with numerous engagements happening here every year.  That’s not too hard to understand; the ambience here perfectly channels history and old-world charm to appeal to just about everybody.

21 Club: First opened in 1922 at the height of Prohibition, 21 Club started its life out as a speakeasy and survived several raids by Prohibition agents. It moved around locations before finally settling at 21 West 52nd Street, where it’s remained since 1929.  Since then it’s been frequented by countless celebrities and film and TV characters.  It serves up traditional American cuisine and delicious signature cocktails, reminiscent of its days as a speakeasy.

Apotheke: Apotheke isn’t exactly an old business, but that’s not to discredit its historical significance.  This speakeasy is located in Chinatown on a bend of Doyers Street known as the “Bloody Angle”, which in the early 20th century was a popular spot for fights between Chinese gangs.  Apotheke itself is housed in a building that during that era served as an opium den.  Although it was established fairly recently, Apotheke relishes in the history that comes with being a speakeasy in such an historic neighborhood, and regularly features “Prohibition nights” with live jazz music.

Katz’s Deli: In the 1940s, there were over 2,000 Jewish delis around New York City proudly slinging pastrami and matzoh ball soup.  Now that number has dwindled to about 20, so those who have survived need to be very good at what they’re doing.  One of the oldest and best of these is Katz’s in the Lower East Side; since it was first founded in 1888, it has outlasted countless other restaurants and delis around the city.  It might be a tourist trap, but that’s only because it’s delicious, and a sandwich from them piled high with pastrami and corned beef is well worth the hectic lines.

Keens Steakhouse: Since it was first established in 1885 (just two years before the New York’s other well-known steakhouse, Peter Luger’s), this has served as the go-to hangout for famous actors, producers, playwrights and other big names in show business.  They’re known for their mutton chops here, and the ceiling plays hosts to over 50,000 smoking pipes.  Notable patrons here include Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers and Albert Einstein.  Like McSorley’s, it started out as a “men’s only” establishment, although that was overturned in 1905 after being sued by actress Lillie Langtry.

Barbetta: This upscale Italian restaurant was first founded in 1906.  Grand chandeliers and antiques dating from the 18th century fill the dining room.  This was the first New York restaurant to “elegantly” approach Italian cuisine in an era when such food was considered “rustic”.  If it’s warm out, you can dine outside in the garden, which is filled with flowers, statues and a fountain to give the feel of a European country estate.

Collapsed Building in NYC East Village

Many around the country have heard about the tragic gas explosion that caused fires, as well as two buildings to collapsed. Many buildings were damaged in the historic East Village neighborhood including the residency of a New York City Mayor, as well as a vintage clothing store from a popular 1985 film called Desperately Seeking Susan. The affected buildings were given landmark status in October of 2012, along with an umbrella coverage of the East Village and Lower East Side Historic District.east-village-building-collapse-1-3262015_lg

The buildings within the neighborhood can be dated back to the mid 1850’s when New Yorkers with more money were selling property downtown to move up town. The ensuing properties were then turned into tenant living quarters. The community has seen a vast array of cultures and ethnicities. Immigrants began to pour into the city limits and the East Village in particular during the late 1800’s. I was considered for a time to be “Little Germany”.

The site of the explosion once had a house belonging to Mayor Fernando Wood. In a New York Times article there was a collection of musicians in front of the plot “serenading” near the mayor’s residence, this occurring in 1855.


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