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10 Surprising Secrets From New York City’s History

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City Secrets is a new mental_floss feature sharing fascinating facts and stories from the histories of famous cities.

Beneath the ever-changing surface of New York City, there are many stories that have been overlooked by the march of time. We spoke with some of the city’s biggest history buffs—including folks from the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and elsewhere—to learn about some of the most interesting bits of Gotham history.

1. BROOKLYN ALMOST WASN’T PART OF NYC.

Brooklyn came very close to not being part of greater New York City. “There was an ardent anti-consolidation movement in the days following up to the vote,” Greg Young, host of the Bowery Boys podcast and blog about New York City history, told mental_floss.

In the 1890s, a legislative push was made to consolidate the five boroughs, raising major criticisms from many in Brooklyn who were concerned about how joining Manhattan would impact their independence and taxation. The anti-consolidators made a compelling case, and almost won the day when Brooklyn voted in 1894. The final tally was 64,744 votes for consolidation, 64,467 votes against.

“Had 278 people stayed home that day, Brooklyn would have retained its independence (at least in that vote),” Young says.

2. THERE ARE SKELETONS EVERYWHERE.

The African Burial Ground National Monument, located near City Hall, memorializes a site where free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans were buried for over a century. After the site closed to burials in 1794, the bones were more or less forgotten about until excavation began on a federal office building in 1991, and shovels began striking skeletons.

Today, there's more to the area than meets the eye. “The African Burial Ground memorial actually marks a very small area of the burial ground,” Young says. “Many of the surrounding buildings were actually built on top of the burial ground in the 19th century, including America’s first department store, owned by A.T. Stewart, at 280 Broadway, which is still there.” (The building, anyway.)

While the site contains the reinterred remains of more than 400 people, some 15,000 men, women, and children are estimated to have been buried in the cemetery’s grounds, which once covered more than 6.6 acres. The memorial itself extends just over a third of an acre—which means there’s still plenty of bodies around.

And this isn't the only recent discovery of human remains in New York. This November, construction workers digging a water main under Washington Square Park discovered a pair of burial vaults dating back to the early 19th century. Dozens of coffins and skeletons, likely belonging to the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church that once stood nearby, were uncovered. Though archeologists are working to learn more about the remains using high-resolution photography, no one will be disturbing the vaults, for a water main or otherwise. 

3. THE STATUE OF LIBERTY HAS CHANGED COLOR.

The Statue of Liberty used to be dark brown. For the first two decades after it was erected in 1886, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s masterpiece was the color of the hammered copper "skin" of the statue. Over the years, it naturally turned green as a result of age and harsh weather conditions. By the time color photographs could accurately capture Lady Liberty’s color, she had turned the familiar hue we know today.

4. THE CENTRAL LIBRARY USED TO BE A RESERVOIR.

Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Before the New York Public Library and its famous stone lions occupied the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the site was home to the Croton Distributing Reservoir. Completed in 1842, the reservoir sourced water from Westchester’s Croton River, and was a main source of drinking water for the city for half a century. The four-acre lake, contained in 50-foot-high granite walls, held up to 20 million gallons of water. But as a second reservoir was constructed in Central Park and the Croton reservoir began leaking, most decided it had “outlived its usefulness,” as a letter to The New York Times put it in March 1891.

In 1898, removal of the reservoir began, making way for the grand public library’s opening in 1911. A historical plaque describing the reservoir can still be seen in the subway passage connecting the 7 train stop and B/D/F/M stop, and remnants of the reservoir’s foundation remain in the library’s South Court.

5. AARON BURR DIED HERE ALONE.

Many people know how Alexander Hamilton died, but less frequently discussed is how the victor of that famous duel ended his days in New York. “Aaron Burr died all alone in 1836 in a boarding house in Staten Island,” Young says. The building was known as the Port Richmond, but was later renamed first as the Continental and then as the St. James Hotel. The building was demolished in 1945, but a plaque recognizing Burr’s death remains there.

But perhaps more odd than Burr’s death was the response of those at the boarding house to the former vice president’s death. When the landlady discovered the vice president’s body, a fellow lodger appeared in the doorway with materials in hand to create a death mask. (It's now on display at the New York Historical Society.) “For years afterwards, guests requested to sleep in the room he had died in. There was even a sign hung over the mantel, ‘Aaron Burr died in this room,’” adds Young. It seems Burr had become more interesting in death than he was during his final years of life. 

6. IT WAS ONCE HOME TO LITTLE GERMANY.

Those with even a casual understanding of New York City know about neighborhoods like Little Italy and Chinatown. But Little Germany may be less familiar.

“During the mid-19th century, the Lower East Side was known as Kleindeutschland (or Little Germany) because it was predominantly populated by immigrants from what is today Germany,” says David Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs and the Hebrew Technical Institute Research Fellow of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Most—though certainly not all—of the German population left Little Germany by the late 1880s and early 1890s, especially after the General Slocum disaster of 1904 killed over 1000 people and destroyed what was left of community cohesion. Meanwhile, large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Russia, Austria, and Romania, moved in. Today, NYC is home to ethnic enclaves from Nolita’s Little Australia to Little Guyana in Richmond Hill, Queens.

7. MAIL USED TO BE DELIVERED WITH TUBES. 

Image Credit: Library of Congress via Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The city’s Post Office Department used to transport a large portion of its mail underground. Beginning in 1897, miles of pneumatic tubes were installed under the city, connecting the major postal stations, which shuttled the letters packed into metallic canisters throughout the city. In 1913, the postmaster installed new, 24-inch-wide tubes between the Grand Central and Pennsylvania Terminals, which were built large enough to carry 100-pound bags of mail.

At its peak, the tubes transported almost 100,000 letters daily—about 30% of the city’s mail. But when the U.S. entered World War I, the high cost of operating the tubes was seen as too expensive, since funds were needed for the war effort. The underground delivery system ended permanently in 1953, although remnants still exist throughout the city. 

8. THE WORLD TRADE CENTER AREA ONCE LIVED UP TO ITS NAME.

Before the Twin Towers were constructed, that area of downtown Manhattan was home to the biggest market in the country—Washington Market. First built in 1812 as a few dozen stalls, over the next century it expanded to become the largest market in the U.S.—and was practically a city itself. Stretching across the lower west side of Manhattan, the market enticed visitors with the smells of cheese, eggs, fruit, and more unusual offerings such as calf skins, sweetbreads, terrapin, green turtles, elk, llama, and bear paws.

After a complete renovation in 1915, the Washington Market continued for several more decades, but faced competition from smaller, cleaner markets popping up throughout Manhattan. The city demolished large swaths of the market in the late 1960s, making room for the World Trade Center, and Washington Market soon faded into history.

9. IT HAS ITS OWN WALKS OF FAME.

Los Angeles may be the city we associate with stars and handprints embedded into the sidewalk, but New York has its own answers to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The sidewalk in front of Theater 80, at 80 St. Marks Place in the East Village, boasts its own collection of celebrity prints, including Joan Crawford’s hands, Gloria Swanson’s shoes, and Myrna Loy’s right hand. The prints were arranged by theater owner Howard Otway, who talked a number of his famous friends into leaving their marks during an opening-night party for a new musical film revival series in 1971. The theater is still owned by Otway’s son, Lorcan, in a building that also houses the Museum of the American Gangster. 

But that’s not the city’s only Walk of Fame. Just a few blocks northwest of Theater 80, pedestrians can stroll over a series of gold-metal stars embossed with the names of Jewish theater legends—the Yiddish Walk of Fame. Though they now sit in front of a Chase bank, for more than half a century these stars marked the entrance of the East Village’s beloved Second Avenue Deli, whose owner, Abe Lebewohl, installed the walk as a tribute to the area’s once-bustling Yiddish theater district. (Today, a part of the original deli sign has been preserved at the City Reliquary in Brooklyn.)

10. PARK SLOPE WAS ONCE THE SITE OF A BLOODY PLANE CRASH.

Though now known as the center of hipster parents and artisanal everything, the sidewalks of Park Slope were once the site of a horrific tragedy. On December 16, 1960, a pair of commercial airplanes collided in mid-air, with one plane (a TWA flight flying in from Ohio) crashing on Staten Island, and the other (a United Airlines plane en route from Chicago), crashing at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place and the brownstones nearby. Six people on the ground and all 128 of the passengers were killed. No memorial marks the site of the crash, but a keen-eyed observer will note the bricks at the top of 126 Sterling—damaged in the tragedy—are a different color than the rest of the building.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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