Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rizal@150. Walking with JPR in New York of 1888.

We came to know of a Rizal marker in New York City over a late breakfast of salmon sandwiches and hot coffee in a Queens deli from Rey Lauron, ex-Madz, ex-UP carilloner, Pinoy music man in Paris for almost three decades and New York since the 1990s.  

This Knight of Rizal recalled being around when the marker was installed sometime in May 1995 in a building at the corner of 23rd St and Fifth Avenue occupied at that time by the International Toy Company.  

"They'll let you take pictures," he assured, "just ask permission."  Obviously, Lauron has not visited the place since then.  We found the building alright, but the toy company is gone and the marker nowhere in sight.  The present occupants say they haven't seen it at all.

This is the Fifth Avenue Building facing the Madison Square Park where the Filipinos and friends assemble annually for the Philippine Independence Day celebrations, and neighbor to the iconic Flatiron Building nearby.

When JPR was in New York, Brooklyn was not yet part of the city. The hub of social, political and entertainment activities was in downtown Manhattan, the areas surrounding Union Square on 14th St and Madison Square Park on 23rd St. 

The Madison Square Park was/is right across the hotel where JPR checked in around noontime on 13 May 1888 after his cross-country train ride that started from Oakland, California seven days earlier.       

"A heritage of New York," the marker says of the  building that started as a farmhouse in 1839, then a tavern until 1852 when it was rebuilt as a hippodrome.  In 1859, that was replaced by "the six-storied, white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel, with the first hotel passenger elevator in New York ... and became a center of the city's social and political life."  What we see now is the structure erected in 1909, designed by Maynicke and Franke in Italian renaissance eclectic style, but it is no longer a hotel.

JPR had only one entry in his travel diary describing his impressions from his train window as they rode into New York, New York -- 

"Sunday 13 May –

"We awoke near Albany.  It is a large city.  There are various vessels in the Hudson River, which runs along its side.  We cross it on a bridge.  The landscape is beautiful and it has not much to envy in the best in Europe.  We travel along the banks of the Hudson.  The banks of the Hudson are very beautiful although a little lonely in comparison with the Pasig.  There are steamers and boats, trees, and hills, mostly cultivated.  The Hudson is wide.  There are beautiful boats.  The masses of granite had been cut to give way to the railroad.  In some parts, it is very long.  There are beautiful houses amidst trees.  The day is mild.  Our grand transcontinental travel ended on Sunday, 13 May, at 11:10 o’clock in the morning.  We passed through various tunnels.  The Art Age, 75 W. 23rd Street. 

-- and as they sailed away for London -- 

"We left New York on 16 May 1888.  There was a crowd at the dock: Those of the 1st class are separate from those of the 2nd class at the entrance.  At 9:00 a beautiful spectacle at the jetty!  White handkerchiefs waving among hat bands, red flowers and other colors. . . . ."   

We have no idea what he did during his brief stay in New York.

The entry "The Art Age, 75 W. 23rd Street" clues us on what he possibly first did in the city.  He walked to this place, which was/is just at the west end of the block bound by 23rd St, Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  The artist in him could have sniffed correctly that this company dealt with the art business.  It was a printing company that put out the monthly journal of the same name. 

JPR could have leafed through the April issue of The Art Age, and liked the articles written with accompanying illustrations, critiques of art works, and reproductions of paintings there.  Here's one feature in that issue as described by The Critic --

He knew the English language, which he had been studying since 1884, and with which he used to learn Japanese from O Sei San during his stay in her country before he left her for the United States.  JPR could have also read the weeklies The Critic and The Nation, and the daily The New York Times, among others, and who knows if he could have brought one of these to read on his way to England, and hone his English?

He could have brought a paper with him to read after a walk to Union Square or right across at Madison Square Park.  If he bought the The Nation (issue number 1193, 10 May 1888), he could have read about the civil service in Philadelphia and the Rumanian peasant revolt, among others, as shown by its table of contents below --

Being a botanist, he could have enjoyed strolling to the parks and reading there surrounded by green trees and flowers of various colors in profusion all around him.  He could have rode to Central Park, which in the first decade after its construction in 1863 was not very accessible to the working class residing in lower Manhattan.  

From his readings, he could have learned about city politics and the Tammany politicians of the day, and could have gone to take a look at Tammany Hall.

Austin Craig (1914) wrote that JPR, during his first life in Europe, "frequently attended the theater, choosing specially the higher class dramas ... and for the rest devoted most of his money to the purchase of books."  The New York papers carried advertisements of book shops and books on sale, and JPR could have scanned something interesting that he could afford to buy.

JPR could have been as eager as most of first-time visitors in New York today to see a play or a musical. In the 1870s, the Union Square area near Broadway at 14th Street was the city's main theater district, and by the 1880s as the city grew northward, new theaters were built near Madison Square, the area surrounding the junction of Broadway and 23rd Street.  The Lyceum on Fourth Avenue and 24th St was the first electricity-lit theater with Thomas Alva Edison himself supervising the power installation in 1885.

A brief diversion ... JPR missed an event that could have merited an entry in his travel notes if he got to New York at least a day earlier.  On 12 May 1888, Thomas Alva Edison exhibited his improved phonograph at the Electrical Club in New York. 

Thus, the theaters were in JPR's walking distance.  We may assume that he did not get to see a play but he could have noted the posters displayed at the lobbies of the theaters.  As gleaned from the the review of the New York Times of 20 May 1888, these were  on stage at that time --

The Still Alarm” was continuing at the Fourteenth-Street Theatre, “Natural Gas” play that was “likely to run well into the summer” at the Fifth-Avenue Theatre, “The Queen’s Mate”, with “magnificent costumes and handsome scenery, had been playing at the Broadway Theatre to large houses, and “likely to run most of the summer”, “The Wife” at the Lyceum was expected to reach its two hundred and fiftieth night by its last performance in June, “The Lady or the Tiger”, an operetta likely on the boards for many weeks being  a “great financial success at Wallack’s Theatre, the comic opera “Nadjy” at the Casino, which has been filled to capacity despite severe criticism, and “Herr Brockmann’s monkeys, dogs, and ponies ... at the Star ... central point of attraction for children of ripe and tender years.”

As a sportsman, JPR could not have ignored the first Madison Square Garden (the present one at the Pennsylvania Station is the fifth) that opened in 1879, which was basically a sports arena.  We do not know what event was being held during JPR's visit, but the usual fare before it closed in 1890 were the PT Barnum circus, boxing exhibitions (boxing perse was illegal), flower and horse shows, conventions, indoor track and field events (first held in 1888).    

It baffles that JPR did not write anything about his stay in New York.  But in his diary concerning an arrogant American in a train ride from Paris to Dieppe in 1889, he wrote that "beginning to be annoyed by the fury of the traveler and I was going to join the conversation to tell him what I have seen and endured in America, in New York itself, how many troubles and what torture the customs in the United States made us suffer, the demands of drivers, barbers, etc., people who, as in many other places, live on travelers…."
What did he suffer in New York?  Did he shut himself away from the New York crowd, the sights and sounds that's why he did not add more to the view he saw from the train and from the ship when he came and left? 

  • Craig, Austin. (1914). Lineage, life and labors of Jose Rizal, Philippine patriot. A Study of the Growth of Free Ideas in the Trans-Pacific American Territory. Yonkers-on-Hudson: World Book Company.
  • "The Life and Writings of Dr Jose Rizal/Diaries of Rizal" (Dr Robert L Yoder, Webmaster). Retrieved from
  • Critic, The. (July-December 1888, Volume 10).  Google Books.
  • Nation, The. (January-June 1888. Volume 46). Google Books.
  • New York Times, The.  (20 May 1888).
  • Madison Square Garden I.  Retrieved from

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