Copyright Leifern

Yorkville is a neighborhood within Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Its boundaries are E. 96th St. (north), E. 79th St. (south), Third Ave. (west), and the East River (east). Part of Carnegie Hill used to be within Yorkville.

In August 1776, about half of Gen. Washington’s troops were stationed in Manhattan, many of them in Yorkville. They were strategically positioned along the East River to protect the other half of their brothers-in-arms if they retreated from Brooklyn, and to counter any attacks from either land or sea.

Gracie Mansion

Copyright Limulus

After a terrible defeat by the Battle of Long Island on 27 August, Gen. Washington’s Continental Army retreated from Yorkville. During the retreat, the British piped the song “Fly Away,” about a fox fleeing from hounds.

Instead of giving in to this musical taunt to fight, the Continental troops retreated in a very orderly fashion. This prepared them for their success next month in the Battle of Harlem Heights.

St. Monica Catholic Church, Copyright Limulus

Carl Schurz Park

Slowly but steadily, Yorkville evolved from farmland and gardens to a modern, industrialized, commercial area. One of America’s first railroads, the New York and Harlem Railroad, went through the neighborhood. The Boston Post Road, a mail delivery route, also went through Yorkville.

The current street grid was lay out from 1839–44. By 1850, a large portion of the population were German and Irish.

After the Civil War, slums were replaced by mansions.

The Marx Brothers’ old tenement, 179 E. 93rd St. (now in Carnegie Hill), Copyright Ephemeral New York; Source

Yorkville was a working-class and bourgeois neighborhood for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to the big German and Irish sections, there were also many Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Lebanese.

Yorkville was one of the most common destinations for German immigrants by 1880. After the General Slocum ship caught fire in the East River, off Yorkville’s shores, on 15 June 1904, many Germans moved to Yorkville from the Lower East Side’s Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Most of the passengers had been German, and people already in New York wanted to be closer to their affected relatives.

There were many ethnic bakeries, shops, groceries, churches, cultural associations, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and imported gift shops.

Sidewalk clock, 1501 3rd Ave. between E. 84th and 85th Sts., Copyright Beyond My Ken

Disgracefully, Yorkville was home to the openly pro-Nazi German American Bund. There were frequent protests and demonstrations against the Bund, including street fights.

Thankfully, its founder, Fritz Julius Kuhn, got busted for tax evasion and embezzling $14,000 from the Bund, and spent 43 months behind bars.

While he was in jail, his U.S. citizenship was cancelled. After his release, he was re-arrested as an enemy alien, and sent to an interment camp in Texas. Kuhn was interred on Ellis Island after the war, and deported to Germany on 15 September 1945. He died in 1951 in München.

146–156 E. 89th St. between Lexington and Third Aves., Copyright Beyond My Ken

On a happier note, Yorkville was a haven for people fleeing from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, and from behind the Iron Curtain.

Today, Yorkville is one of Manhattan’s richest neighborhoods.

Landmarks include Lycée Français de New York, Carl Schurz Park, Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s official home), the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal Asphalt Plant, the Rhinelander Children’s Center, Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Monica Church, Holy Trinity Church, St. Joseph’s Church, and Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Copyright Ephemeral New York; Source

Besides the Marx Brothers, other famous residents of Yorkville include Lou Gehrig (born in the neighborhood) and James Cagney (grew up on E. 96th St.).

My characters Vera and Natalya Lebedeva move to a cellar apartment in Yorkville in spring 1929, after their father finally lets them live on their own. After Natalya’s marriage to Rostislav Smirnov, she stays in the neighborhood.

Vera finds a job teaching second grade in Yorkville after she graduates Hunter, and moves back to the Lower East Side after marrying Rostislav’s brother Vsevolod. She and Vsevolod later return to Yorkville and move into a brownstone a short distance from Natalya and Rostislav.

Novomira Kutuzova-Tvardovskaya, the daughter of old family friends, lives with Vera and Vsevolod while she attends Barnard.

Washington Square Park

Copyright Jean-Christophe BENOIST

Washington Square Park, a 9.75-acre (39,500 m2) landmark of Greenwich Village, is one of New York City’s best-known parks. Its landscape is dominated by Washington Square Arch, from which it takes its name, at the northern gateway. Another prominent feature is the fountain.

Most of the surrounding buildings are now NYU property, but were formerly artists’ studios and homes.

The park is at the foot of Fifth Ave., and bordered on all sides by Washington Square. In addition to the massive arch and large central fountain, other features include walking paths, picnic tables, two dog runs, gardens and trees, benches, play areas for kids, memorial statues, and chess and Scrabble tables.

Copyright Elisa.rolle

Copyright Ludovic Bertron; Source

The park was originally divided by a narrow, marshy valley containing Minetta Creek (which is now covered). Sapokanican (Tobacco Field), a Native American village, was nearby in the early 17th century.

Dutch settlers were using the land on both sides for farming by the mid-17th century. They gave this land to their slaves, an act which freed them. However, this wasn’t an altruistic action, as they intended these freed slaves as a buffer against potentially unfriendly Native Americans.

The freed slaves also had to give part of their profits from the land to the Dutch East India Company, and their kids would be born slaves instead of free. This arrangement lasted from 1643–64.

Seventh Regiment on Review, Washington Square, New York, Otto Boetticher, 1851

The area ceased being farmland in April 1797, when it became a potter’s field (i.e., public burial ground) for the poor and unknown. In the early 19th century, this burial ground was also used for yellow fever victims.

At the time, this land wasn’t part of Manhattan, and was thus safely away from the source of contamination.

The cemetery closed in 1825, but the remains were never reinterred elsewhere. Over 20,000 graves are still beneath the park’s grounds. Excavations have found graves dating as far back as 1799.

In spite of an oft-repeated urban legend in many guidebooks, there was only one known public hanging in the burial ground, and the tree was not Hangman’s Elm in the northwest corner. Rose Butler was hanged in 1820 on the eastern side of Minetta Creek.

Hangman’s Elm does have its own storied history, though. At a verified 339 years old, it’s Manhattan’s oldest known tree. It was part of a private farm till the city bought the land and added it to Washington Square in 1827.

Hangman’s Elm, Copyright Srosenstock

After the city bought the land in 1826–27, the square was levelled and laid-out. It initially was the Washington Military Parade Ground, a training-ground for volunteer militia.

The streets around the square were one of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods in the 1830s. This era is attested to in a protected row of Greek Revival houses on the north side.

In 1849–50, the land began taking on its modern park shape. In 1871, under the newly-created NYC Dept. of Parks, it underwent more redesigning.


In 1889, in celebration of George Washington’s inauguration centennial, a large wooden and plaster memorial arch was erected at Fifth Ave., just north of the park. It was so popular, it was replaced by a permanent marble arch in 1892, modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

During the excavations in preparation for the eastern leg, a gravestone, coffin, and human remains dated to 1803 were discovered 10 feet underground.

This arch was designed by infamous architect Stanford White, whose sexual misdeeds with Evelyn Nesbit led to his murder by Evelyn’s husband Harry Thaw in 1906.

Copyright Jess Hawsor

The original fountain was finished in 1852, but replaced in 1872. In 1888, a statue of military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was unveiled, and a statue of Alexander Lyman Holley followed in 1889. Two statues of Pres. Washington were added in 1918.

The park underwent a number of renovations after Robert Moses became parks commissioner in 1934, but his plan to extend Fifth Ave. through the park and into Soho was thwarted by local activists, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

Alexander Lyman Holley, renowned mechanical engineer and inventor

My Russian characters who settle in Greenwich Village after immigration, and later their kids and grandkids, frequently go to this park. My characters who live in other neighborhoods also sometimes come here.

Hamilton Heights and Hotel Kämp

Copyright The Fixers; Source Wikis Take Manhattan 2009

Hamilton Heights is an uptown Manhattan neighborhood which used to have a heavily Russian flavor. Its borders are 155th Street (north), 135th Street (south), Edgecombe Avenue (east), and Riverside Dr. (west). Within Hamilton Heights is the sub-neighborhood Sugar Hill.

It takes its name from Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who lived his last two years there. His mansion, Hamilton Grange in St. Nicholas Park, is a reminder of a bygone era when NYC was mostly farmland, with detached houses.

Hamilton Grange, Copyright olekinderhook; Source

Mount Cavalry United Methodist Church

Much of the housing dates from the late 19th and early 20th century. As beautiful as this architecture was, it became less desirable to white residents in the 1930s and 1940s because many African–Americans had begun moving in. At the time, they were just as affluent as the white residents.

In the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and again after WWII, many White Russian émigrés, Poles, and Ukrainians called Hamilton Heights home. The neighborhood was home to Russian churches, bakeries, groceries, bookstores, theatres, and delis, a library, and a Russian House.

Today, only the Holy Fathers Church is left.

Holy Fathers Russian Church, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Church of St. Catherine of Genoa, Copyright Beyond My Ken

Today, most of the residents are Hispanic, African–American, and West Indian. Many African–Americans in the eastern section are professionals.

Like just about every other Manhattan neighborhood, Hamilton Heights too has been taken over by gentrification and hipsters. Many of today’s non-Hispanic white residents are artists, actors, teachers, and other professionals.

Trinity Church Cemetery

Landmarks include St. Nicholas Park, Riverbank State Park, Riverside Park, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Trinity Cemetery, the former High School of Music & Art, the Audubon Mural Project (depicting the birds painted by John James Audubon in the early 19th century), the City College of New York, and the Harlem School of the Arts.

My character Mrs. Viktoriya Yeltsina and her two oldest daughters, Valya and Zina, settle in Hamilton Heights after they escape to the U.S. in January 1924. They ran boarding houses in Moskva and Tver, so it’s only natural they establish a boarding house in Hamilton Heights.

Their boarding house serves the Russian community, and they have their own spacious apartment within it. When Valya finally marries at 39 (to a man thirteen years her junior), she stays in Hamilton Heights to raise her family and run a Russian gifts boutique.

Hotel Kämp was designed by prolific Helsinki architect Carl Theodor Höljer, and built in Neo-Renaissance style by restaurateur Carl Kämp. After its grand opening in October 1887, it quickly gained a reputation as Helsinki’s grandest, most luxurious hotel.

The hotel had 24 gas lamps, 25 electric lamps, 75 rooms, a beer house in the cellar, a street café (débuted summer 1891), a French-style roof (sadly lost after 1914 renovations increasing the hotel’s height), and its own horse-drawn transport from the depot and port. It was also Finland’s very first hotel with an elevator.

Many famous artists, singers, musicians, composers, writers, intellectuals celebrities, and royalty stayed by Hotel Kämp, or met in its café. The newspaper Päivälehti (now Helsingin Sanomat) began its publication from the café.

As it originally looked

After the 1918 Finnish Civil War, the occupying Germans used Hotel Kämp as their HQ. During the Winter War of 1939–40, the hotel was used again by foreign occupiers. Many Finnish and foreign diplomats and politicians also stayed by the hotel during WWII.

Over the years, the hotel lost its former glittery prestige, and closed in 1965, among many protests. The historic building was razed, with a new hotel taking its place in 1969.

Since 1999, the hotel has once more become Finland’s grandest.

Pre-demolition interior

Copyright Kämp Collection Hotels; Source

Copyright Mikkoau

My character Pyotr Litvinov often stays by Hotel Kämp during his Finnish holidays. As the son of a high-ranking Party member, he has more leeway for travelling abroad than many others.

In June 1940, Pyotr takes an enormous risk by bringing his baby sister Yaroslava on his annual summer holiday. Pyotr has been planning to defect for some time, but his plans are hastened when Yaroslava, under suspicion as a “social parasite,” begs him to help her escape.

They spend one night in Hotel Kämp, and after a late, long, leisurely breakfast by the café, they set off for Sweden and defect.

18 April 1918, Copyright Gunnar Lönnqvist

Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part II

Manhattan’s first skating pond for the upper classes was opened and operated by Major Oscar Oatman, head of Park Slope’s hoity-toity Washington Skating Club, in 1862. Fifth Avenue Pond was one of several in the vicinity, and formed from a spring.

This pond was fenced, with a cloakroom and saloon with warming stoves. Employees constantly swept up debris to keep the ice spotless, and Oatman was also there around the clock. It spanned 11 acres, between 59th and 57th Sts., and Fourth and Fifth Aves.

Fifth Avenue Pond, in a hollow shielding it from the wind, had been used for years by boys, esp. ones from the Beekman estate around 61st St., between Fourth (today Park) and Fifth Aves. In 1862, Madison Ave. didn’t yet cut through the pond.

A raised thoroughfare cut through it in 1865, shrinking the pond’s size. The pond remained open through 1868.

Skating lessons were offered for women and kids, and chairs on large runners were available to those who couldn’t and didn’t want to learn to skate. By night, limelights (calcium lights) and large reflectors lit up the pond.

Each afternoon, a brass band played a range of operatic and national music. They played even in sub-zero temperatures in January 1866.

Oatman charged $10 for a season pass, only given to those who could produce so-called quality references. His pond was only for people of “character and respectability.”

The pond opened at 7 AM, for the many wealthy and fashionable people who had a habit of skating before breakfast. It closed at midnight, and wasn’t open on Sundays, the only day most normal people had off.

Skates in that era were long boots coming as far up as the knee, and were often utilitarian colours like brown, black, and tan. Forget about custom-dying skates to reflect one’s personality, or women and girls predominantly wearing the white skates popularised and made de rigueur by Sonja Henie in the 1920s.

These old-school, custom-made skates cost as much as $50 ($700 today). Dresses ending just above the ankle were considered short, again decades before Sonja Henie made shorter dresses and skirts fashionable and the sport’s standard.

Men wore Scottish wool trousers and chinchilla pea coats.

Every season, Harper’s Bazaar gave detailed recommendations for fashionable skating apparel. Outfits included bright colours (dark deemed too sombre), short jackets, fur-trimmed Russian suits, fur muffs, Highland plaids, beribboned caps, calfskin skates with chamois lining, and plumed sealskin toquet hats.

HB advised against white undergarments in favour of blue merino stockings. This was an era when women had to wear long skirts and dresses on the ice, and could neither wear pants nor shorter skirts and dresses enabling them to move more freely.

Elaborate hairstyles for women were considered bad taste. One of the hairstyles HB recommended instead was a braided chignon with a crimped tress.

Costume balls and carnivals were the highlight of the skating season. These events included fireworks, and many elaborate costumes. During the Civil War, some men dressed as Zouaves, a popular regiment with very bright uniforms.

Oatman also hosted women’s skating matches, which drew many crowds. Not only did the winner get a gold medal, but also all of her competitors. Members of the NY Skating Club were judges. The club, founded in 1863, had its HQ by Fifth Ave. Pond from 1865–68.

One of the club’s members, champion skater Alexander McMillan, designed an expensive, custom skate made of solid iron and steel.

After Oatman’s pond closed in 1868 (due to much nearby construction), the action moved to Mitchell’s Pond (the current site of Plaza Hotel). This pond too offered live music, contests, and carnivals. It was paved over in 1871 to build the Windsor Hotel.

After Mitchell’s Pond closed, patrons moved to McMillan’s Pond by 46th St. and Fifth Ave. As always, the city’s élites flocked to it.

Yet another move followed upon the heels of construction moving uptown. Artificial rinks began appearing, such as Empire City Skating Rink by 63rd St. and Third Ave. in 1868. It boasted hundreds of gas lights, a 70-foot high arched ceiling, and many refreshment rooms.

This era coincided with skating’s evolution into a real sport.

Writing about ice-skating in historical fiction, Part I

My favourite vintage skating photo in my virtual collection so far!

Humans have been ice-skating since at least 3000 BCE, as evidenced by animal bone skating shoes found in present-day Russia and Scandinavia. The first written record of skating came in the 12th century, describing children in Canterbury, England, playing on the ice with animal bones attached to their boots.

Edges came in the 13th or 14th century, by whom else but the skating-loving Dutch. For the first time, the blades attached to footwear were steel instead of bone. About the same time, blades took on proportions very close to their modern ones.

Skating first appeared in artwork in the 15th century, depicting the Dutch St. Lidwina, patron saint of ice-skaters, falling on the ice. This fall broke her leg and left her progressively disabled for life.

Then as now, the Dutch people loved ice-skating. Historical records and artwork testify to people from all walks of life enjoying the winter sport. Many people also skated as a means of transportation, since connecting waterways were often frozen for months.

In other places, only members of the upper classes were allowed to skate. Skating came to France during the reign of Louis XVI, and Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire loved it so much, a large ice carnival was built in his court in 1610 to popularize it.

Skating slowly began taking on its modern form in the 18th century. In 1742, the Edinburgh Skating Club became the very first ice-skating association, and in 1772, the very first instructional book, A Treatise on Skating, was published by Robert Jones in London.

Jones, a former artillery lieutenant, was instrumental in popularizing ice-skating in Great Britain. Sadly, his book was published the same year as a high-profile trial in which he was convicted of sodomizing a 12-year-old boy several times. His death sentence was commuted by King George III, on condition he leave Britain forever.

Jones’s book was intended only for men, as British women typically didn’t ice-skate in that era, even without all the jumps we expect today. This book also split ice-skating into its two main forms, figure skating and speed skating.

The next major development was the opening of several skating ponds in Central Park. This became the highlight of the winter social season for the upper classes. The first skating pond opened in 1858, and reignited New Yorkers’ interest in the sport. Earlier skating ponds downtown had long since been built over.

People who didn’t live within walking distance took carriages and horse-drawn railway cars. Sex segregation quickly disappeared, and skating became one of the few things single men and women could do together unchaperoned.

The sport’s growing popularity led to further skating ponds in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey City, and Hoboken. In 1863, the Skating Club of New York was founded.

Park commissioners opened the ponds when 4–5 inches of ice had built up. When they felt it was safe to hold thousands of skaters at a time, they raised a red ball by the belltower, just south of the reservoir. “The ball is up” became code for a skating day, and created a great to-do.

The city railroad cars also signified skating days by flying white flags with red balls on the end of each vehicle. Some cars falsely displayed flags to attract customers.

Many surrounding buildings rented skates and provided fires to warm up by. On the southern side of the main pond, the “rude but comfortable” Casino (run by Charles A. Stetson, owner of luxury hotel The Astor House) sold hot cocoa, beer, and cream soda. For a quarter or less, skaters could also get cakes, fried oysters, clam chowder, pickled tongue, and sandwiches.

Other park restaurants catered to a less moneyed clientele.

Unsurprisingly, the haves soon backed away from rubbing elbows with the have-nots and suffering the crowds of Central Park. In 1862, they moved to the Fifth Avenue Pond, Manhattan’s first private skating pond.

To be continued.