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Matthew Davis Walker
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Entries by Matthew Davis Walker

A New York Story: Polo Grounds

(7) Comments | Posted February 22, 2012 | 12:01 PM

Over sixty years ago right fielder Bobby Thompson crossed home plate and a thousand kids in nickel caps danced on Harlem stoops with dreams filling their heads that someday they too would swat the high fastball into the left field bleachers at the Polo Grounds and win the pennant, finally, for their New York Giants.

And then, in 1964, the dream was over.

The ball club moved west. They tore down the park, razed the land and built the Polo Grounds Towers. A sanctuary that children used to sneak into became low-income housing on West 155th Street, a place children can only hope to escape. Runs from the fire department punctuate daily life and even the most modest dreams often collide with hard realities. The only thing that signals a game was ever played there is a bronze plaque on the pillar of the North Tower and a decrepit and sectioned off staircase that leads down from Edgecombe Avenue.

Pete Hamill, novelist and storied New York reporter, winces as he remembers the meaning of the departure. He points out that it was at ballparks like the Polo Grounds where immigrants like his father truly became Americans because it was within those walls that they sat shoulder to shoulder with other New Yorkers. It didn't matter if they were from Salerno or Cork. The only thing that mattered was the game and the team and when that was gone many of those memories crumbled along with the skeleton of the park, all of it in a city where some never forgot.

And for those people the Polo Grounds still exists. Bill Kent, President of the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society, still recites with youthful exuberance line-ups and days sixty years past when he lounged in the bleachers between double-headers. For him and the society he runs, the park could never leave. After all, no one forgets their first love. As Mr. Kent sits outside his apartment and bears his heart, it's almost as if at any moment, he'll turn and look toward Edgecombe Avenue so that he might catch a glimpse of the stadium lights still there, still shining and hear those cheering voices carried along by the Harlem River winds.

Things won't change any time soon at the Polo Grounds Towers. Sometimes change isn't always for the best and as time passes fewer and fewer people on those Harlem streets will talk about the 'Say Hey Kid' and 'The Shot Heard 'Round the World.' Eras end. Parks are torn down. Fields are paved over. But, as Bill Kent shows, memories can rebuild what has been lost. Dreams still make the old young and there will always be the high fastball and the left field bleachers for those who remember....

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A New York Story: Gleason's Gym

(1) Comments | Posted February 15, 2012 | 10:07 AM

Bruce Silverglade simply describes the business he owns as a "fight gym." Nothing more, nothing less. And after opening the big door and hulking up to the second floor of 77 Front Street in DUMBO, anyone who enters can plainly see that, yes, this is a boxing gym. But describing it as just a fight gym or a boxing gym is a bit like calling Yankee Stadium just another ballpark. That definition, fight gym, doesn't do the space justice so it's better just to call the place by its proper name: Gleason's.

Gleason's is literally world-famous throughout the universe of boxing. It has been the backdrop of a myriad of films, TV shows, and photo shoots. The gym has all the central casting elements: old metal lockers line the walls and the three rings are usually filled with sparring partners. Heavy bags dangle from the ceiling and the place has a sweat and blood smell and feel that cannot be faked.

But among 200-pound men skipping rope and beautiful women engaged in combat, you might also notice the pictures on the wall: Jake LaMotta, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran. Boxing royalty, champions all, men who once called Gleason's home back when New York was at the center of the boxing galaxy.

Gleason's was once a mecca for pugilists. Before moving to Brooklyn, it stood in the Bronx and then in Manhattan on West 30th, near Madison Square Garden, back when 'The Garden' was the premiere locale for a big championship bout. But as time wore on and the allure of Las Vegas became greater, there was a decline. New York City was no longer the capital of boxing and with that, Gleason's no longer the mecca.

But if you wander through Bruce Silverglade's gym, making sure to avoid the bantamweight on the speed bag and the two men shadow boxing in front of the mirrors, and head straight toward the offices in the back you'll surely notice the big yellow sign. Nailed to the wall among dozens of pictures of current and past champions is an admonition from the poet Virgil: "Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands."

That defines Gleason's, a fight...

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A New York Story: Queens County Farm

(0) Comments | Posted February 8, 2012 | 9:16 AM

Kennon Kay is a normal twenty-something New Yorker. She lives on a normal Brooklyn street in a normal walk-up apartment. Her commute to work is long, crowded, unpredictable and filled with traffic. All quite normal. But normal ends when Kennon enters the gates to her job. There, inside those gates, the wail of noise, of sirens, horns, jackhammers and trains are replaced by the high-pitched chirp of chickens, the grunting of pigs, and the sway of the breeze through the acres of green that make up the Queens County Farm Museum. Here Kennon Kay is Director of Agriculture; the farm's 47 acres, her office.

The Queens County Farm Museum is the oldest continually operated farm in the state. Dating back to 1697, the space is as much farm as it is museum. Preserved alongside the fields and rows of corn is a way of life foreign to most New Yorkers. But growing in popularity is its offering of organic fruits and vegetables that, most weeks, make their way from the quaint three-acre planting site to Union Square market and eventually end up in the kitchens of some of Manhattan's trendiest restaurants.

Kennon spends her days planning, organizing, planting, and ultimately harvesting plots of tomatoes, okra, peppers, and myriad other fruits and vegetables. She feeds the chickens and tends to the goats and sheep. She plans the spring plantings and the fall harvest. As much researcher as farmer, Kennon is responsible for every fruit and vegetable grown on the farm and for finding a home for the produce either at market or in the homes and kitchens of friends.

Kennon Kay is a normal twenty-something New Yorker, but only in New York can you start your day feeding chickens and end it circling the block for a parking space. Kennon Kay is an 'only in New York' New Yorker because she does what many can not do: she's a farmer in the heart of a bustling...

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A New York Story: Putnam Rolling Ladder Co.

(0) Comments | Posted February 1, 2012 | 9:44 AM

Gregg Monsees looks younger than he is. At 62, with his hair still holding most of its original color, Gregg looks almost boyish. His penny-loafers, khakis and oxford shirts do little to shake the visual impression that Gregg might just be a visiting proctor from an old New England Prep school. However, if you head over to 32 Howard Street in SoHo and go inside, toward the back where his desk is covered with the jumbled flotsam of his business life, Gregg will be there, quite willing to tell you about the company he now runs: Putnam Rolling Ladder. 

Gregg knows all the details: founded in 1905 by Samuel Putnam, the company was passed to Gregg's great Aunt, Caroline Rehm, and then on to his father, Walter Monsees. Gregg will point out that in the 1980s, after law school and a career in Virginia, he went to work "for" not "with" his father. He wants you to know the difference. 

Gregg might mention that the building, Number 32, as well as the building next door have been company headquarters since the early 1930s. He'll point out what you can plainly see: that the building next door has been rented and renovated but that Number 32 remains very much the headquarters, the heart and soul, of the niche business he runs. 

A rolling ladder is what you see in large libraries. It is the kind of ladder that enables you to reach that book or journal on the top shelf, the kind that runs along long book-lined walls of university halls or the quiet reading rooms of private clubs. They are the type of ladder that Putnam Rolling Ladder now assembles in Brooklyn but still houses here at this ancient building in SoHo.

Weaving through ladders of all shapes and sizes and buckets of bolts, nuts, and hinges, you begin to get the sense that little has changed since Putnam Rolling Ladder moved here in the 1930s. The ladders are still being hauled up and down by a big chain contraption, the second floor machinery warm and greasy, the back room with its lockers for changing and the piles of yellowed, typed orders filled with expired details are, to some, relics of a more orderly time before websites and on-line availability for nearly everything in print. 

Equal parts salesman and curator, Gregg can provide facts and anecdotes for just about every square inch of his property. And, like the building, the Monsees' have been here a long time and Gregg assures that "over his dead body" will they go out of the ladder business. 

The businessman side of Gregg is a realist and he admits that it's recently been a tough time for small outfits, especially a niche business Rolling Ladders. However, the curator side of Gregg, the one that knows the 100 plus year history of this building, is an optimist. Making ladders is something the Monsees do and will continue to do. It's simply something his father passed down to him and the son is not about to let...

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A New York Story: Gramercy Typewriter Co.

(1) Comments | Posted January 25, 2012 | 10:55 AM

A New York Story - "Gramercy Typewriter Co." from Prospect Productions on Vimeo.

Eight million people live in New York City. The great metropolis needs no more introduction than that, but Paul Schweitzer does.

Paul, at 72 years old with thinning silver hair, stands like a relic from a bygone era in a three-piece, tailored suit and tells us that he fixes typewriters for a living. On its face, especially in today's 24-hour tweet-a-thon, who Paul is and what he does might be forgettable. We would click through or change his channel, but Paul's story needs to be told precisely because he makes up the fabric of this city, this country. He's a regular guy, the kind we see a million times a day on an Uptown A or the cross town express. We've seen him in elevators and in giant lobbies on Park Avenue and once in a awhile we might even ask 'what's he up to?' But the latte is ready and the phone buzzes and when we look again, he's gone.

The facts of Paul and his ancient yet still surviving business have all been relayed before: the smaller-than-it-once-was office across from the FlatIron building, near Madison Square Park. The "No Credit Cards" sign hanging neatly above that battleship of a desk. The ringing of a telephone and the surprise when Paul or his son Justin picks up the line. But to see Paul in action, working in the back room on an Olivetti or an Underwood is something like confirming Mays actually played center field. We know it happened.  We've seen the video, the catch, the throw,the smile, but we have nothing to touch or point to. 

Except Paul Schweitzer still very much exists. The craft of supplying and maintaining typewriters not so much in need as it was when Mays roamed the Polo Grounds, but like the ribbon eating machines he services, there is still something to point to, to touch, still someone making house calls to fix an Underwood or Olivetti. 

The phone will ring in the small 5th Avenue offices and Paul will pick up. The keys on an electric are jammed down on Broadway. A few essentials taken down with pen and paper and he's off, physician's bag by his side, to ply the trade he's been in for more than 50 years. To ply the trade that so very few in this world can, that so few of this eight million could even imagine still...

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