The Tiny "Spite Triangle" That Marks a Century-Old Grudge Against New York City

Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On an otherwise unremarkable stretch of sidewalk in New York City’s West Village, a tiny tile mosaic serves as David Hess’s century-old middle finger to City Hall. As cartoonist Chaz Hutton recently alerted us on Twitter, what was once the city’s tiniest piece of private property is the result of the angry collision of historic quirks in New York City’s street grid, turn-of-the-century city planning decisions, and intense grudge-holding. And you can still trespass on it today.

While most of New York City’s streets are laid out in a neatly ordered grid, Lower Manhattan—the oldest part of the city—is, cartographically speaking, kind of a mess. That’s because the city didn’t implement an official master plan for the layout of new streets until 1811, more than a century after the Dutch established a settlement at the southern tip of the island. The earliest-built parts of the city still maintain some of the quirks of a pre-plan settlement where property owners built their own streets with nearly no official oversight, resulting in a haphazard array of oddly shaped, variably sized blocks and narrow, crooked streets.

The bit of property now known as Hess’s triangle is located in this latter part of Manhattan, where the street grid is still a little wonky. It was even more so in the 1910s, when the city decided it needed to extend Seventh Avenue, a wide thoroughfare that was first built as part of that landmark 1811 master plan. In order to make room for traffic and for the construction of a new subway line, the city condemned an 11-block stretch of the West Village, demolishing hundreds of buildings starting in 1913. The extension was finished in 1916.

A 19th century map of properties in the West Village
A survey of New York City property from 1897. You can see the plot labeled "Vorhes" in the center.

Because of the unique layout of the area, though, the new road didn’t cut through every block equally. Some property owners only lost only a corner of their buildings, while other structures were completely razed. Lots that were once full-sized became awkward triangles of property. Such was the case for Hess, who owned an apartment building called the Voorhis (or Voorhees, or Vorhes, depending on who you ask) that stood right in the middle of where the city wanted the road to run. Despite Hess’s best efforts to hold out, the city seized his property. Or, most of it. Though his building was demolished and the street built, the city’s surveyors accidentally missed a piece of it.

By 1922, Hess had already died, but his heirs weren’t about to give the city the land, no matter how useless it was. Instead, they laid down a mosaic of tiles inside the two-foot-wide triangle to serve as a reminder that it was private property, not just another stretch of sidewalk. It’s now known as Hess’s Triangle. The tiles read: “Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purpose.”

The tiny plot—barely big enough for one person to stand on—is still there at 110 Seventh Avenue, sitting in front of what is now a cigar shop outside a subway entrance. You can even see it on Google Maps. It no longer belongs to the Hess estate, but it’s still private property—the Hess family sold it to the owner of the building next door in 1938.

[h/t Chaz Hutton]

Winston Churchill Once Got a Doctor's Note So That He Could Drink Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

 Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

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