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Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure

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Winner of the Publication Award for Popular Culture and Entertainment for 2009 from the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America
Named to Pop Matters list of the Best Books of 2009 (Non-fiction)
From the lights that never go out on Broadway to its 24-hour subway system, New York City isn't called "the city that never sleeps" for nothing. Both native New Yorkers and tourists have played hard in Gotham for centuries, lindy hopping in 1930s Harlem, voguing in 1980s Chelsea, and refueling at all-night diners and bars. The slim island at the mouth of the Hudson River is packed with places of leisure and entertainment, but Manhattan's infamously fast pace of change means that many of these beautifully constructed and incredibly ornate buildings have disappeared, and with them a rich and ribald history.
Yet with David Freeland as a guide, it's possible to uncover skeletons of New York's lost monuments to its nightlife. With a keen eye for architectural detail, Freeland opens doors, climbs onto rooftops, and gazes down alleyways to reveal several of the remaining hidden gems of Manhattan's nineteenth- and twentieth-century entertainment industry. From the Atlantic Garden German beer hall in present-day Chinatown to the city's first motion picture studio—Union Square's American Mutoscope and Biograph Company—to the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, Freeland situates each building within its historical and social context, bringing to life an old New York that took its diversions seriously. Freeland reminds us that the buildings that serve as architectural guideposts to yesteryear's recreations cannot be re-created—once destroyed they are gone forever. With condominiums and big box stores spreading over city blocks like wildfires, more and more of the Big Apple's legendary houses of mirth are being lost. By excavating the city's cultural history, this delightful book unearths some of the many mysteries that lurk around the corner and lets readers see the city in a whole new light.

320 pages, Paperback

First published August 1, 2009

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About the author

David Freeland

4 books8 followers
David Freeland is the author of the books Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure; Ladies of Soul, and American Hotel: The Waldorf-Astoria and the Making of a Century. As a historian and journalist, he has written for the Wall Street Journal, am New York, Time Out New York, New York History, American Songwriter, and other publications. He appeared in episodes of NBC TV’s “Who Do You Think You Are” and NYC Media’s “Secrets of New York.” Freeland lives in New York, where he leads walking tours and gives lectures on the city’s culture and history.

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Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews
Profile Image for A.
282 reviews106 followers
June 21, 2012
This book should be required reading for anyone who lives in New York City -- or any urban setting, really. Freeland chronicles life as it was over a century ago, looking at buildings (and even entire neighborhoods) that have not existed for decades -- yet the stories he tells are thoroughly, shockingly of the moment.

I think the average New Yorker in 2012 has a whole litany of gripes they feel are completely of their era (post-Stonewall, post-Jonathan Larsen, post-Giuliani, post-2008 economic crash): very specific battles about race, sexuality, income inequality, gentrification, the police state, the limits of public pleasure, etc. How thrilling and mortifying for someone from 2012 to see those exact same battles pitched on the exact same battlefields -- in popular restaurants, in gentrifying bars, in upwardly mobile boutique hotels -- way back in 1912. I mean cmon folks, the first chapter is all about how people in the Williamsburg of the turn of the century complained bitterly about immigrants from downtown Manhattan swarming their neighborhood!

Yes, the book is a little dry and a little slow (it is an NYU Press publication after all), but the journey is thoroughly rewarding. Speaking of, I came to this book after going on a phenomenal Jane Jacobs Walk led by David Freeland (the author) through the Tenderloin and Tin Pan Alley (which are both covered in this book). I would highly recommend you do the same (or do any of the Jane Jacobs Walks); to this day there is a building on Seventh Avenue and 24th St. that I can never look at the same way again.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,480 reviews104 followers
November 11, 2010
East Side, West Side, all around the town..........this delightful book examines the neighborhoods and buildings of a bygone age in NYC....buildings which have disappeared or been abandoned because of "progress", taking with them part of the history of the world's greatest city. Some we know from popular culture...Billy Rose's Golden Horseshoe, Horn and Hardart's automat, and the Log Cabin Club. Others, from the early 20th century are not as familiar but are as equally treasured and missed. The author provides colorful background information for each location and his distress at their destruction is shared by the reader. He paints a vivid picture of the city where "dime-a-dance" halls, jazz clubs, movie palaces, and Tin Pan Alley shaped its character. This is an extremely well researched book and the author has uncovered remnants of this history which still can still be found right under our feet. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for David Landon.
1 review7 followers
August 19, 2009
I am currently reading this fascinating book, a sort of walking tour of Manhattan with an emphasis on old theatre and entertainment sites: the Hebrew Actor's Union, the Atlantic Garden, the Lincoln Theater. David Freeland obviously loves New York, its history, its vanished and not yet vanished places. This is a must for anyone who is passionate about New York theatre.
83 reviews
March 7, 2013
I'm into NYC history and Automats, so I picked this up. While I typically enjoy research books, especially of NYC, this one was such a boring read. Even the section on the Bowery put me to sleep. I didn't find this book's presentation of NYC neighborhoods and former buildings interesting enough, which is sad because I find this stuff incredibly interesting. The epilogue, where he tours of a burned out building for sale that was once the Nest Club, you can feel his nostalgia and passion for history that made this book come to be finally come alive.

Profile Image for Jenna.
577 reviews34 followers
March 22, 2010
A very interesting geographic/social historical look at different New York theatres/entertainment areas. I especially appreciated the maps. The descriptions were vivid and certainly made me want to walk around NYC with this book in hand looking for the clues and hints to the past.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 32 books1,198 followers
March 30, 2014
A must-read for flaneurs & amateur urban archaeologists.
Profile Image for Janet.
Author 12 books7 followers
November 22, 2015
Even though this is published by a university press it isn't stodgy and academic, au contraire, quite amusingly written and very informative. I love social history!
Displaying 1 - 11 of 11 reviews

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