Five Facts I’ve Forced Upon Strangers at Bars Against Their Will This Month
I firmly stand by that we were much more interesting when we were children. While our vocabulary was unsophisticated and attention span severely strained, on a daily basis we were flooded with a monstrous amount of information and spent our evenings pouring over Encyclopedia Brittanica and asphyxiating ourselves with Elmer’s Glue while neurotically perfecting a trifold board presentation. At a young age, we could recount every state and capital with confidence, breeze through long division without hesitation, pen a email without relying on autocorrect for every fifth word, and essentially give a TedTalk about cell organelles. Fast forward ~30 years: most men think liking F1 is an entire personality type, no one knows what crypto is yet we talk about it, and it’s amazing how much air time you can juice complaining about the humidity.
While I fully recognize it is socially unacceptable to discuss the solar system with someone you’re meeting for the first time, we can all do better. Here’s a handful of curious facts that you can throw in your back pocket or use to jump off on your own chaotic self-education journey:
1. Wild thing most New Yorkers don’t know: there’s a fishing line encircling the entire city. Yes, a clear fishing wire is attached to posts outlining a perimeter of the city, from First Street to 126th. This string is part of an eruv, a Jewish symbolic enclosure. While this is news to many, observant Jews rely on this string to leave the house on the Sabbath. The concept of the eruv allows more realistic life under the laws of Sabbath rest, particularly one — no carrying from the domestic zone into the public zone, meaning no pushing a baby stroller. So many others rely on the eruv to leave the apartment with their children on weekends. More than 200 cities around the world boast an eruv and while Manhattan’s certainly isn’t the largest, it’s the most expensive costing between $125,000 and $150,000 a year to maintain. Every Thursday before dawn, a rabbi drives the perimeter, checking for any breaks the line. If one is found, a construction company is called and the rabbi gets in a cherry picker to repair the eruv by hand. That’s the part that costs the most.
2. My favorite bizarre NYC fact: there are 20,000 bodies buried under Washington Square Park. The NYC Parks and Recreation Department has confirmed 20,000 bodies have never been disinterred and are lying at varying depths below the grass and pavement of the park. How did this become a mass grave? In 1797, the NYC government realized the city was rapidly expanding and bought a portion of an old farm (what is now the park) for $4,500 to make a potter’s field. This burial ground operated for 30 years and nearby churches also grabbed parts of the adjacent land for their dead. Only adding to the chaos, the city sheriff erected a public gallows where the square’s fountain currently stands. The main source of the body count though? The epidemics of yellow fever which stuck in the years 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803. This caused the city to seek and create a new, larger potter’s field at the current site of Bryant Park and in 1827 they (shoddily) capped the mass grave and threw our iconic WSP right on top of it.
3. Finally, the story behind that weird triangle tiled mosaic in front of the cigar store at 7th Avenue and Christopher Street in the West Village. There’s a chance you’ve walked by this 1,000 times and never paid it much attention so here’s some solid New York enlightenment. In the early 1910s, city planners launched a project to expand Seventh Avenue and build a subway to run directly through the West Village. However, this plan involved tearing down 250 buildings along an 11-block stretch, including a building known as the Voorhis. The owner of the Voorhis, David Hess, fought tooth and nail against the city, challenging their eminent domain claim; however he lost the battle and the Voorhis was demolished in 1913, with the plot becoming the road above the subway…all accept for 500 square inches. That tiny triangle escaped unscathed, still deeded to the Hess family. In 1922, the Hess estate tiled the triangle with a message that read: “Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purpose.” The so-called “spite triangle” sat directly outside Village Cigars’s door and the Hess estate ended up selling it to the property owners for $1000 in 1938.
Side note: *imagine* trying to enforce eminent domain over a massive swath of the West Village today?
4. Lady Liberty was dismembered with her parts scattered around the world in order to drum up money for her completion and her right arm spent considerable time in midtown, Manhattan. Logistics in the 1800s (actually really any time before Amazon prime) never cease to baffle me and the thought of carting parts of the statue of liberty over an ocean just for a promotional stint further defies basic rationale. Construction on the statue begin in 1876, first with the extended right arm and torch. This was deliberate as it was to be shipped to the US to raise awareness about the project and drum up much needed funds. The arm was first showcased at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and then after a fight between Boston, NY, and Philadelphia, it was relocated to Madison Square Park, the most fashionable spot in the city at the time, where it served as an advertisement for the grandeur to come for a full six years. Between 1881 and 1884, the entire statue—after the right arm was sent back across the Atlantic—was eventually assembled in a public park in Paris before making her grand trip to the US, where she was assembled then unveiled October 28, 1886.
5. Remember that time the state of New Jersey brought the city of New York to the Supreme Court because NYC was dumping all of its trash along New Jersey’s beaches every day? New York City’s history of trash is fascinating but some of our dirtier dealings with garbage landed this city in the hot seat of the Supreme Court in 1931 in 283 U.S. 473 New Jersey v City of New York. It’s somewhat comical that the not-so-subtle elitism New Yorkers feel over New Jerseyans is nothing new. Since the 1880s, New York City was taking almost *all* of its trash from the three boroughs, loading it on a boat, driving over to the New Jersey shoreline, and dumping it along their beaches. After refusing to stop, things got escalated the Supreme Court, where New York City flat-out denied everything, while continuing to bury New Jersey in heaps of trash. The Supreme Court ruled that NYC had to stop bullying New Jersey and quit being a jerk.