"Oh how I love the automat
the place where all the food's at"
Life magazine, March 1928
Doyers street, scene of the Chinese Theatre massacre
The sumptuous Atlantic Garden at 50 Bowery c.1870. All images, NYPL digital archiveAt the Victorian Society awards a few weeks ago, I chatted with David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure. Now, I get obsessive in my avocational interest in New York history—tracking down images, poring over details— but he does it on a professional level! It was a thrill to speak with someone whose New York knowledge is academically comprehensive but who also appears to be just as viscerally enthralled by the poignance of everyday details.
Freeland finds slivers of the city's past which, though difficult to spot, can come to light if you train your eyes to see them. He's not interested in simply documenting architectural loss (e.g. blogs like vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com) he's got the determination to ferret out and appreciate the bits that remain.
The book is a treasure hunt of sorts, all over Manhattan. Freeland crawls out onto rooftops, he follows circuitous underground passages through Chinatown, and peers at faint traces of ornamental frippery stranded amidst the bleak streetscapes of Manhattan economic expedience. With Freeland's perseverance, the reader is able to cut through the cultural detritus of places like Grand Slam tourist shop in Times Square to the remnants of the original 1912 Horn and Hardart Automat. Elsewhere he conjures up Bowery beer gardens, swank nightclubs, gambling saloons and revives the heyday of Tin Pan Alley.
Freeland's research and documentation is astounding: where was Rogers Peet? how much did the cooks at the Automat make? what drinks did the Atlantic Garden serve? The implications of the American Mutoscope Company's "How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed"? (I live on this stuff, though some readers might find the occasional tsunami of facts a bit overwhelming.)
As amazing to me as his storehouse of facts is his orchestration of essentially three narrative voices. Freeland shifts between the modern-day flaneur—an often poetic observer of the present reality, the historian—a neutral provider of historical fact, and the eye witness—a "you-are-there" recreation of period events.
Freeland is obviously quite given over to the idea that it is possible, in some way, to tap into-- experience-- the past.
If time is just a continuum and the present, past, and future all exist together with the past and future hidden from view then New York's past is still there lurking just beyond the range of our vision.In a favorite old post of mine I describe a similarly intense awareness.
To the extent that a [period] photographic image, the rectangle, is a metaphorical window, its frame blocks the rest of the world that continues just beyond those edges. The "glass" is immovable, the "window" shut. I wonder, though, about what is to the left or the right. Or what connection there might be, in that photo of yesterday, to what I know today.If I understand it correctly, the philosopher and essayist Johann Gottfried von Herder's term Einfühlung, often translated as "empathy," puts a name to this complicated and elusive state of mind that I know very well and which seems to pervade Automats.
... a "feeling into," [Einfuhlung is] projecting one’s mind into the object of one’s contemplation, of seeing and thinking and experiencing from its perspective and so coming to understand it better, of turning it into a subject and oneself into the object of its gaze.– Robert Daly (SUNY Buffalo)