Jane’s Walk: Let’s Get Walking!

JacobsVSMosesJane Jacobs (1916-2006), writer and activist, published her critique of post-World War II urban planning policy in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs begins her book with a pointed challenge: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” For New Yorkers, these urban policies were personified by Robert Moses.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Jacobs held Moses responsible for the decline of many neighborhoods in New York City. They fought a David vs. Goliath battle with Jacobs in the role of the stone-hurling shepherd. Jacobs was determined to save city neighborhoods from Moses’ grandiose urban renewal plans. But enough about him….


Photo by pdxcityscape via Flickr

Next week, the Municipal Arts Society (MAS),and other organizations in cities across the globe, are sponsoring Jane’s Walk, a series of citizen-led walks throughout the five boroughs. The initiative is designed to get folks to tell stories about their own neighborhood, explore their community and connect with neighbors. It’s a community-based effort in urban literacy. Let’s just call it a celebration of the local; in plain sight, but often overlooked and unappreciated.


Jane Jacobs’ work was inspired by her years living in Greenwich Village, a mix of townhouses and tenements on twisting and narrow streets that did not conform to the city’s grid. She contrasted life in the Village, a cohesive community, with the grandiose plans of Robert Moses. His “towers in the park” concept, anathema to Jacobs, was then changing the face of New York City. But really, enough about him….


Photo courtesy of Municipal Arts Society

The Jane’s Walks tours are listed by location and topic on the MAS web site. The theme of each walk is up to the volunteer organizer, and all walks are free and open to the public.

In Brooklyn, the Go Dutch in Flatlands! Jane’s Walk led by volunteer Ellen Halliday, is actually a bicycle tour meeting at the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church on Kings Highway. The church was built in 1848 for a congregation founded in 1654. The tour description reads: “Let’s dish some history and gossip while we bike around with a side of vinyl replacement windows!”


Photo by Wally Gobetz via Flickr

Volunteer Anna Araiza will lead the Old Croton Aqueduct Walk. Beginning in the Bronx, the tour will cross the Hudson River via the High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge and end up in Manhattan at the Highbridge Water Tower and reservoir (now the Highbridge pool).


Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Says Araiza: “The summer of 2015 brought the inaugural re-opening of the Highbridge, the only pedestrian bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan. With the restoration project now complete, I invite you to explore the Old Croton Aqueduct…”

This year, which would have been Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, the MAS lists more than 200 Jane’s Walk offerings. There is no advance registration. Just turn up at the designated meeting site, explore a new neighborhood and meet fellow New Yorkers. Let’s Get Walking!

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities


Eliza Jumel: American Success Story, Maybe

She’s the woman who dueled with Aaron Burr and won. Move over Alexander Hamilton. The life of Eliza Jumel is a tale about a woman who pulled hard on her Yankee bootstraps to make good on the American dream. Margaret Oppenheimer’s splendid book, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: Marriage and Money in the Early Republic, takes readers along on a tale of intrigue, scandal and innuendo. Far from a steamy beach read featuring men in white wigs, this meticulously-researched tale paints a detailed and scholarly portrait of New York City and the way in which the city’s growth provided fertile ground for the ambitions of its heroine.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Chicago Review Press

Both Eliza and the American Revolution were born within weeks of one another in 1775. Eliza entered the world in Providence, Rhode Island as Betsy Bowen; an infant daughter who would be raised in what was called a “Disorderly House.” Here, her mother received men nightly; one of the few options for women of the era with no husband upon whom to depend. Eliza came to New York City to reinvent herself and lead a new life. And she succeeded.

In New York City, Betsey became Eliza, marrying “up” with a union to French businessman, Stephen Jumel. In 1810, they settled into a 140-acre estate in what was then called Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. The house had originally been built by Roger and Mary Morris. Eliza re-christened her home Mount Stephen, in honor of her (seemingly happy) husband.


The Jumel Mansion as it appeared in Appleton’s Cyclopoedia of American Biography, 1892, v.3, p. 487, via wikimedia.com.

Dr. Oppenheimer describes a rural paradise in Early Republic Manhattan Island overlooking the Harlem River. Mount Stephen included a working farm. Eliza and Stephen planted one of New York’s earliest vineyards, orchards of peach, apricot and apple trees from which cider was pressed. Eliza tended the grape vines and gloried in the elegant boxed garden filled with flowers, vegetables and fruit. Cliffs on the Harlem River led down to rich oyster beds and fresh seafood. These were served on ice taken from the river in the winter and stored in the estate’s deep ice cellar. Uptown living was good.

After Stephen Jumel’s death, Eliza wished to make the transition from rural contentment in northern Manhattan to urban mover and shaker in the city’s downtown area. For this, Eliza, now a wealthy widow, needed a powerful husband. Enter Aaron Burr.



Aaron Burr portrait by John Vanderlyn, 1802, via wikimedia.com.


Picture Credit: John Vanderlyn portrait of Aaron Burr, 1802, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Just where and how Eliza Jumel and Aaron Burr met is hard to know. Dr. Oppenheimer’s meticulous research did reveal that they both checked out books from the New York Society Library (still operating in 79th Street) on the same day. Eliza’s marriage to Aaron Burr in 1833, was designed to open social doors downtown and bring the creme de la creme of New York society up to her country estate. But Aaron Burr, his ambitions, his plans and his debts, did not add up to the social bargaining chip that Eliza had calculated.

Instead of a step up on the social ladder, the subsequent divorce proceedings in 1834 brought gossip and scandal, accusations and counter-accusations. Divorce papers appear to have been filed by Eliza on the anniversary of Aaron Burr’s New Jersey duel with Alexander Hamilton. And for good measure, Eliza’s accusations of adultery also pointed to New Jersey, an easy ferry ride across the Hudson River from Jumel Mansion, as well as Burr’s preferred trysting place.

Burr stalled the divorce with 15 adjournments and his own accusations of adultery against Eliza. The marriage was finally dissolved in 1836. Eliza kept all of Stephen Jumel’s fortune and real estate holdings. The cleverest lawyer in New York City, Aaron Burr, had dueled with Eliza Jumel and lost.


But with the divorce, Eliza lost all possibility of social advancement. She took herself off to Europe where she could again reinvent herself. Her favorite new identity was that of the grieving widow of the American vice president, Aaron Burr, who had died in 1836. Eliza even made a move to collect his military pension from the Revolutionary War, but failed. The remainder of her years seems to have been devoted to expanding and holding on to her substantial fortune and property.


Eliza Jumel portrait.  Photo by Trish Mayo, Collection of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Picture Credit: Courtesy of Trish Mayo, Collection of the Morris-Jumel Mansion

Born two weeks prior to the start of the American Revolution, Eliza Jumel died two months after the conclusion of America’s Civil War. Her remarkably long life of 90 years was echoed by the long journey of her last will and testament through the courts. This legal odyssey managed to revive and embellish many sordid stories about Eliza’s earlier life. She was accused of being morally deranged and killing her first husband, and (my favorite story) identified as the mother of George Washington’s illegitimate son. Spoiler alert: She wasn’t.


In 1907, her former home became a museum. Named the Morris-Jumel Mansion, commemorating Roger and Mary Morris, who built the original house, and Eliza Jumel, its most famous resident, it boasts many of the furnishings bought by Eliza and Stephen Jumel. It is Manhattan’s oldest home, and its furnishings have been restored to their former glory. Alas, concludes Dr. Oppenheimer, the same cannot be said for Eliza Jumel’s reputation

Follow Kim Dramer on Twitter:  #KimDramer


Women & the Sidewalks of New York

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on March 17, 2015

New York sidewalks and chalk have been partners with the city’s women for generations. Setting the scene for childhood games of hopscotch and jump rope, chalking on the city’s pavements is a ritual of growing up female in the city. New York sidewalks also bear the weight of the city’s footsteps and the hopes and dreams of New York women. So too, they bear the weight of dreams unrealized or cut short, however light or fleeting the step of the dreamer. In this way, New York’s sidewalks link generations of women in the city, their hope and their despair.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York’s fashionable women strolled along the sidewalk of the city’s shopping district, Ladies’ Mile. Here, women admired displays of the latest styles of shirtwaists, a type of blouse that epitomized the modern American woman, in department store windows. Poised and fashionable, a woman wearing a shirtwaist was the ideal modern woman. But her stylish figure came at a price that was paid by other women working long hours for low wages in the city’s miserable sweatshops.


Picture Credit: Courtesy of GSAPP, Columbia University

At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan, women sewed shirtwaists six days a week. Around 500 women were crowded into three floors behind long rows of sewing machines. On March 25, 1911, shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, fire broke out.


Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, c. 1900, Kheel Center, Cornell University, trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu


Workers at the factory found their path to escape blocked by locked doors with only a single fire escape. Management fled the factory without warning those who toiled in crowded and unsafe conditions. Firefighters arrived with ladders that were too short to reach the eighth, ninth and tenth floors where the fire raged. As firefighters and police watched helplessly, women found their only choice was to perish in the flames or jump from the windows and plummet to their deaths on the pavement.

That day, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls, died in the fire. The youngest of the victims was fourteen years old; the oldest was forty-three years old. On April 5, 1911, over 100,000 New Yorkers took to the streets in pouring rain for a symbolic funeral procession. On the sidewalks of the city, nearly half a million more watched and grieved.


Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, 1911, Courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu

Those sidewalks, where once thousands mourned, are now the focus of Ruth Sergel, a New York City artist. Using the city pavement as her canvas, Sergel has devised a way to honor the lives and dreams of these women who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Sergel organizes Chalk, an art project that she labels a “public intervention” in which the struggle for social and economic justice continues for today’s garment workers.

In Chalk, volunteers use colored sidewalk chalk to inscribe the name and age of each woman on the pavement in front of her home. A small sign is taped to her building, asking New Yorkers to remember her life, the tragedy of the fire and the continued fight for economic justice for all women. It’s a ritual repeated each March 25th, the anniversary of the tragedy. Through Chalk, one day each year, these women become again, however briefly, part of the humanity that treads the sidewalks of the city.


Picture Credit: Courtesy of streetpictures.org/chalk

To participate in Chalk, volunteers go to Ruth’s website. Here, a map is populated with figures marking the spot where each of the victims of the fire lived. On the website-map, the figures of women mostly cluster on the streets of the Lower East Side appearing like piled up like pieces of fabric cut out from chalked patterns. Through Chalk, these figures are stitched, piece by piece, not into shirtwaists, but into stories of New York women.


Photo Credit: Lewis Hine, 1910, Courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu

The names on the list speak of women from southern Italy and Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Each pattern piece tells the story of a voyage in steerage from Europe, a life in the tenements of New York City, and a beautiful American dream, cut short by the flames of the fire.


The map is actually a new chapter in the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. At the time of the tragedy in 1911, a complete list of victims did not exist.Historian David von Drehle compiled the most authoritative list of 140 victims for his 2003 book on the Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. The six missing victims were finally identified by amateur historian and genealogist Michael Hirsch, almost 100 years after the tragedy. He was determined to change anonymous victims into known women with stories to tell.


Picture credit: Courtesy of streetpictures.org/chalk


A resident of the Lower East Side, Hirsch identified the women using public documents, family interviews, and reading ethnic newspapers including the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and Il Giornale Italiano. He visited the sixteen cemeteries holding the remains of the victims.


From the tiny figures on the map, I selected Maria Tortorelli Lauletti (age 33) and Isabella Tortorelli (age 17). Both women lived on Thompson Street, a stone’s throw from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Street. Maria and Isabella were one of several pairs of sisters working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that day.


The first year, I invited a friend to join me in Chalk to honor these two sisters. We imagined the walk Maria and Isabella took to work each morning from Thompson Street to Washington Street. We imagined them eating lunch in Washington Square in late March, a time when New York weather can carry the promise of good times to come. We imagined them stopping at St. Anthony of Padua church on Sullivan Street to light a candle or say a prayer. We imagined that some of their prayers involved giving thanks for finding work together in a building so modern that it even had an elevator that led to the top floors where they worked. But most of all, we thought of the tragedy of these two lives, cut short. By the end of that afternoon, our hands were covered with the dust of colored chalk. We transferred traces of that chalk onto our faces as we wiped away our tears.


Photo Credit: maryannerussell.com

Over the next years, as the details of the Tortorelli sisters’ lives were revealed, I latched on to the hopes and dreams of the sisters for their new lives in America. Maria, I learned, was a widow with five children. I looked at the façade of the building at 133 Thompson Street and began to think of these sisters as women, not just as victims. I wondered: Which windows were hers? What hopes were in the daydreams of her children as they looked out those windows to the sidewalks below? As I finished chalking at 116 Thompson Street, where Isabella had lived with her parents, I wondered if she had a fiancé or a boyfriend. Had she been setting aside her wages for a new life and a family of her own in America?


Last year, I returned to Thompson Street to Chalk the Tortorelli sisters with two young women. They both had an incredible grasp of Women’s History and the role of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the history of the United States. They set to work enthusiastically and smiled with pride as they noted that these two women, whose terrible deaths we now memorialized, had contributed directly to changes in New York labor laws, making them a model for the nation. They spoke about how the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a turning point in the life of Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Perkins, they informed me, was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. She dedicated her life to improving working conditions after witnessing women jumping from windows to the pavement below. These events were a source of pride for this generation of women. It was a happy occasion with smiles all around and colored chalk memorials decorating the sidewalk.


Photo Credit: Kim Dramer

We remembered Isabella and Maria Tortorelli as women of courage and vision; women of determination, hard work and perseverance. Powerless sweatshop workers were now a source of pride and inspiration for this generation of women.


Through Chalk, for one day each year, until spring rain washes the chalk from the sidewalk on Thompson Street, the lives of these women are part of our city again. They touch a new generation of women. Their hopes and dreams live again in the sound of footsteps, walking over colored chalk, on the sidewalks of New York.


Photo Credit: Kim Dramer


Women Wearing Hats: Celebrating Margaret Corbin

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on May 11, 2016.


A heroine of the American Revolution, Margaret Cochran Corbin was the first woman to take a soldier’s part in the fight for independence. She saw action during the Battle of Fort Washington, and was captured in the crushing American defeat on November 16, 1776.

IMG_1528Margaret Corbin lies in eternal rest at West Point. Here, Margaret Corbin Day is celebrated during May by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).


67538e9720ded2bed1db0d3f19315640This year’s gathering celebrated the growing understanding and appreciation for the role of American women in the history of our country. At the Old Cadet Chapel,Brigadier General Maritza Sáenz Ryan US Army, Retired, and a 1982 graduate of West Point, US Military Academy, spoke of the many hats worn by Margaret Corbin and other women Patriots.

Through blazing summers and cruel winters alike, these dedicated women endured the privations of war right alongside the soldiers. – Brigadier General Maritza S. Ryan US Army, Retired.

It was women like Margaret Corbin, explained General Ryan, who provided key and essential field services for the Continental Army. Women worked as laundresses, seamtresses and nurses. As water carriers, they assumed a role that was crucial for providing drinking water for soldiers as well as cooling down artillery pieces after firing.

Molly_Pitcher_engraving (1)Prepared to serve in these functions at Fort Washington, Margaret Cochran arrived in New York with her red hair tucked into a ruffled mob cap. She had accompanied her husband, John, a private in the Pennsylvania Artillery to the field of battle at the northern tip of Manhattan island. Here, at the height of the battle, Margaret Corbin switched hats, changing abruptly from field service to artillery service. Still wearing the mob cap of a colonial American woman, Margaret Corbin sprang into active military duty, taking the place of a wounded soldier who was part of the artillery crew.

After her husband fell, mortally wounded, Margaret Corbin continued to man (or more precisely, offered General Ryan, “to woman”) the cannon single-handedly. It is said that Margaret fought overwhelming British and Hessian forces, swabbing, loading, aiming and firing a 6-pound cannon that was usually handled by four artillerists. Hers was the last American gun at Fort Washington to fall silent as enemy forces overran the American fortifications.

Margaret Corbin was taken prisoner by the British after the American defeat at Fort Washington. But the Patriot actions during the battle, including the military role of Margaret Corbin, had allowed George Washington to escape capture. He fled by boat across the Hudson River to Fort Constitution (now Fort Lee) on the New Jersey side of the river.

Margaret Corbin, now a POW, was sent by horse-drawn cart to the Patriot stronghold in Philadelphia for medical care. It was a journey of three days before Margaret’s wounds were properly cared for. Her jaw was shattered. Grapeshot from enemy fire that had likely killed her husband, had injured her neck and rendered her left arm completely useless.

Washington would ultimately return victorious to the battlefield at Yorktown in 1781, gaining independence for our country. Margaret Corbin was awarded an Army pension. Changing hats once again, she was assigned to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, assuming the status of wounded veteran. Here, she spent her happiest hours as “Captain Corbin” amongst her fellow soldiers. General Ryan noted: “She expected, and received, salutes and professional courtesies whenever she came on post.” The Adjutant at West Point personally saw to Margaret’s welfare as a wounded veteran.

Resolved: That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive during her natural life, or the continuance of said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states. – Journal of the Continental Congress of July 6, 1779.

In 1800, at the age of 49, Margaret Corbin was buried without fanfare in the woods near West Point. Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day, and a 1993 graduate of West Point, US Army (Retired), delivered the narrative of Corbin’s return and burial in the West Point cemetery. Through the efforts of the DAR, Captain Molly’s remains were located and disinterred, 151 years after her heroic actions on the battlefield at Fort Washington. She was identified by means of the war wounds she had suffered: Three grapeshot were still embedded in the bones of her shoulder; her shattered jaw bone indicated pain and suffering that were the price of her heroic military actions. The remains of Margaret Cochran Corbin were re-interred at the West Point cemetery with full military honors on March 16, 1926.


Each spring , the DAR has celebrated Margaret Cochran Corbin Day; an occasion designed to honor her actions, her bravery and her contributions to American history. At this year’s services, General Ryan remarked: “We remember with deepest gratitude, a woman whose heroism transcends the limitations of her time and place to inspire all of us, men and women alike, to walk, if we dare, in her brave footsteps.”


This year marked the 90th Margaret Corbin Day. A church service at the Old Cadet Chapel, remarks and wreath laying and 21-gun salute are usually followed by a luncheon with female cadets at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

In 1976, the year the first women cadets arrived at West Point, the Margaret Corbin Forum, a cadet club, was founded. Exactly 200 years after Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions at the Battle of Fort Washington, the Forum provides a voice in support of the commitment to the integration of women in the Corps and in the military. It is a fitting legacy for Margaret Corbin, the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the war for liberty.

During Margaret Corbin Day in 1978, for the first time, a woman cadet helped place the wreath at Margaret Corbin’s Grave and monument, to this day, the only monument depicting a woman that has been dedicated here at West Point.-Jennifer Voigtschild Minus, USMA 1993 and current DAR Chairwoman of Margaret Corbin Day.

Margaret Corbin wore many hats: She was an Army spouse, a widow, a soldier, a wounded POW and a disabled veteran. Today, as women expand their role in the military, the hats keep changing. During Margaret Corbin Day at West Point, DAR ladies in formal hats mingle with women wearing US Army officer caps and female Cadets wearing the white hats of the US Military Academy. All come together to honor and celebrate the legacy of Margaret Cochran Corbin and her fight for independence.


The Cadet Salute.  Photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr.