Union Square under Blizzard - one of the oldest New York movies
(Click here for the Romanian version)
Childe Hassam - Winter in Union Square, 1889–90: from 1889 to 1895, Hassam worked in a studio at 95 Fifth Avenue, not far from Union Square, one of his favorite subjects during this period. This picture shows a view of the square looking south from the corner of 16th Street. In the background, the hotel Morton House is seen on the left and, across from it on the right is the domed building of the Domestic Sewing Machine Company. Barely visible between them is the spire of Trinity Church
(excerpt from the web catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum)
Union Square: the place where Broadway and Park Avenue meet the 14th Street, one of the focal points of Manhattan, always crowded, it's like a climax for Greenwich Village and Chelsea, for Gramercy and the Flatiron District, so distinct each other and they join here: perhaps the busiest place in the city that is the world's busiest.
Here starts the 4th Avenue that becomes Bowery Street when it reaches Chinatown - you can say the Union Square is the place where Broadway and Bowery see each other - a huge metronome stands between them, on the façade of a Circuit City store. On the opposite side of the square there is the statue of Washington - there are also the monuments of La Fayette, Lincoln and Gandhi. And almost always the square is full of tents and stands - it's the market place of Manhattan.
One of my first days in New York I walked on Broadway from Spring Street up to Times Square. It was winter and I was wearing a fur cap. As I was passing Union Square, two young girls tried to seize my cap to make fun. I succeeded to avoid them, but it was a tough moment. As I renounced after that event to wear the cap, I saw no more reason to elude Union Square, anyway, you have to pass there almost every day if you are in New York and want to go from one place to another. One of the largest subway stations is there - Union Square is like a hub for all directions.
I was many times there, but I would rather let a painting and a movie tell the story of Union Square. Both made in the same epoch, a painting of Childe Hassam, and a movie whose creator remained unknown.
One of the oldest New York movies, from 1899. It opens a collection of small movies about Manhattan that were made between 1899 - 1940. I watched the whole collection yesterday - around 150 minutes in all. Today I came back to the first one and I watched it several times, enchanted.
In the Grip of the Blizzard, that's the title. It's March 1899 and Union Square is under the blizzard. I knew that winter in New York can be sometimes far from a mild affair, but in that year it was total craziness - the Great Blizzard of 1899, as it would remain known in history.
The movie is only two minutes long, but it's like a charm. Street cars running on Broadway and on the 14th Street, slowing to give priority to carts and carriages: it's so charming, it's incredible. And the camera takes slowly a circular view, loitering on the vehicles, on the drifts of snow, on the people. Dziga Vertov would make The Man with a Camera in 1929, but his eye is already here in the Blizzard, the same eye perceiving the street scenery.
And the rhythm of Vertov is also here, in the Blizzard: the pace is alert while each image is treated with careful consideration. It's like good jazz, each theme with a very distinct place, the succession of themes very rapid.
Then there is the main character - a man with hat and shovel, slaloming among vehicles, arriving near a drift of snow, moving around in an amazing Chaplinian ballet, announcing Charlot, only Charlot would come in 1914!
A movie of two minutes and the creator posses the eye and the tempo of Vertov and the choreographic vision of Chaplin, only this creator is unknown! All we know is that In the Grip of the Blizzard was produced for The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (they had started in 1895 and this movie had the production number 875). By that time the studio was placed on a rooftop just in one of the corners of Union Square.
And the painting of Hassam... Pissaro comes in mind, and for good reason, because here, in this Winter in Union Square Hassam is a great artist who knows to discover the delicate beauty of the busiest place of the busiest city.
(New York, New York)