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History of the City Club

Early Years

New York City, in the late 1800’s, played out against a backdrop of upper class opulence overshadowing the growing immigrant population, poverty, and deplorable conditions of the City’s most vulnerable. The dichotomy was stark. People like Vanderbilt, Astor, Morgan, Frick, and Rockefeller were building mansions along Fifth Avenue while those less fortunate were crammed into small, filthy, windowless rooms (up to 12 to a space) downtown.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, against impossible odds, connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn. The Great Blizzard paralyzed the city in 1888 with snowdrifts rising to the second story on buildings. Jacob Riis was documenting the abuse and horrid conditions he saw in the tenements, along with those doomed to inhabit them. How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, published in 1890, opened the dialogue as to why these disgraceful conditions were allowed in this City and what we were going to do about them.

Politically, the Tammany Hall machine dominated everything. Hugh J Grant, a Tammany Hall Democrat was Mayor of NYC from 1889 to 1892 and was succeeded in 1893 by the man who ran his mayoral campaign, Thomas Francis Gilroy. Gilroy had been involved with Tammany Hall since his 20’s and later became chairman of the Tammany Committee on Organization and Chairman of the Executive Committee and Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society.

Corruption was the order of the day.

It is amidst this landscape that the City Club of New York came into being. 

 

Edmond Kelly with some of New York’s most prominent gentlemen founded the City Club, in 1892. By March of that year, The New York Times reported that the Club was “progressing satisfactorily” and stated their mission was to “promote social intercourse among persons specially interested in the good government of the City of New York, in securing honesty and efficiency in the administration of city affairs, and in severing municipal from national politics. The organization will also aim to procure the election of fit persons to city offices, and will exert its influence steadily in behalf of an honest, efficient, and independent city government.” The City Club was established as a non-partisan and pro-active organization that would serve as a watchdog to promote effective and good government.

Things were moving along wonderfully for the group as it purchased its first home base at 677 Fifth Avenue in October of 1892. The Times’ article on its progress included the Officers of the organization as James C Carter – President, Edmond Kelley – Secretary, G C Magoun – Treasurer, August Belmont -Vice-President and W Bayard Cutting as Second Vice – President with a rich description of the interior of the 677 Fifth Avenue mansion.

Cleaning up corruption, as was done with the Lexow Committee, and breaking the hold of the Tammany Hall machine guided their mission of good government. By 1893, the City Club began establishing Good Government Clubs in every Assembly District and in 1895 they worked to elect William Lafayette Strong as a reform candidate for mayor. Although but a brief respite from the machine, Strong was responsible for many reforms in the City, most notably bringing Theodore Roosevelt to his new role as Police Commissioner. The next mayor of New York City was Robert Anderson Van Wyck, the first Mayor of the City of Greater New York (Jan 1898) following the consolidation of the boroughs.

The City Club created legislation and wrote bills to be introduced by NY State Senators and State Assemblymen. They were interested in everything from better government to public health, clean water to street cleaning, development and housing, to snow and garbage removal.

By 1896, they attempted to limit the height of buildings in NYC by writing a bill and sending it to Senator Pavey to introduce in Albany, and helped to form the Citizens Union, an independent political party. 

In 1899, a bill was drafted to prohibit and punish the soliciting from judicial officers or candidates for judicial offices, and the payment by such candidates, of assessments or subscriptions for political or other purposes.

The City Club moved its headquarters over to 19 West 34th Street, in 1899. In 1901 a new building for the organization was commissioned and in 1905 they took ownership of 55 West 44th Street.

The City Club came to the aid of the once neglected grave site of the first Mayor of New York, Thomas Willett in 1913. After stumbling upon it, then City Club President Charles Strong decided something must be done. After carefully researching this was indeed the burial site, the City Club purchased and erected a fine monument for Mayor Willett (served 1665 and 1667).

They also were prominent in fundraising for war efforts in WWI and instituted a War Committee in 1917 to provide volunteer services.

They took interest in all transportation in the City and State as it was growing quickly and worked on solutions for how best to manage it. The first official subway opened in Manhattan on October 27, 1904. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) operated the 9.1-mile long subway line that consisted of 28 stations from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. Service expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915. There were also private coach lines that operated on City streets. The City Club was instrumental in the preservation of Bronx Park, home of the NY Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, when the Rapid Transit Commission intended to run a rail right through it.

Bronx Botanical Garden

1930s-1950s

Fighting corruption remained a constant and the 1930’s saw many instances where the Club took legal action to uphold justice. They demanded the removal of the NYC District Attorney for not properly doing his job. Similar actions were brought against John Ahearn (Borough President), Asa Bird Gardiner, and Edward Swann (District Attorneys of NY County). Ahearn was removed from his position but the other charges were dismissed.

The City Club Bulletin, their first newsletter, was published monthly from September 1895 through 1940. News from the Bulletin frequently made its way in to the New York Times.

July of 1926, they published the first of their “municipal murder map for the year 1926”. This marked the death of every child killed by automobiles or other street vehicles in Manhattan that year. Their conclusion was that the City needed more playgrounds to “draw the children off our murderous streets”.

So it was not surprising that in 1937, the City Club chose to give their first annual Citation For Meritorious Service to Robert Moses, then Commissioner of the NYC Department of Parks. Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia had consolidated the borough Parks Departments, and appointed Robert Moses sole commissioner of a unified Department of Parks for New York City in 1934. By the time he received this award, hundreds of playgrounds had been built. Three zoos, 10 golf courses, and 53 recreational buildings were completed. Orchard Beach opened in the Bronx, and Jacob Riis Beach opened in Queens. Perhaps most impressively of all, 11 enormous outdoor pools with an average capacity of 5,000 people each opened in neighborhoods all over the city during the sweltering summer of 1936.

But the romance was short lived. The City Club opposed many of his new development ideas. Most notably was Moses’ insistence to erect a bridge, rather than a tunnel connecting Brooklyn to lower Manhattan at the Battery. Once the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was decided upon and construction began, the Aquarium was demolished. Moses also wanted to demolish Castle Clinton in the process. Preservationists worked desperately to save the structure, which Moses claimed was beyond saving. The war paused the demolition effort and the preservationists won out. Though the struggle proved difficult in NYC, where Moses ruled, thanks to the efforts of George McAneny (former Club president), Albert S Bard, and other City Club reformers, Castle Clinton eventually became a National Monument, reprieving it from the hands of Moses.

The Women’s City Club (a separate organization, as was the custom at the time) had announced moving their headquarters into the City Club’s building on West 44th Street, in 1941, where they would both reside. This would bring two of the oldest civic organizations in the City together under the same roof. A few years later, though, the City Club was once again on the move.

In 1944, they were now housed in a suite at the Hotel Russell on Park Avenue. Continuing their work for good government and the contemporary issues they fought over the years City Club members were growing older and weary. It was becoming harder to recruit younger members and in 1950, they announced they were disbanding. The announcement must have sparked inspiration since younger men joined and they continued to operate well through the 1950’s. They resumed their distribution of a newsletter, the City Club Comments, in 1959. President I D Robbins and his wife, Carolyn, were instrumental in this publication.

1959 also saw the Club award their Citation For Meritorious Service to James Felt, then Chairman of NYC Planning Commission, for updating zoning regulations.

1960s-2000

The 1960’s and 70’s saw many changes in New York City. Under the Presidency of I D Robbins, things were hopping at The City Club. They repeated early challenges to the manner in which the Department of Buildings inspected buildings and proposed a better plan to do so. They opposed a large development project on the former Washington Street Market site. They believed studies should have been undertaken to “relate the Washington Street project to the new Port Authority plan”.  They also believed such a development should include affordable housing, something Mr. Robbins was especially interested in undertaking.

By 1964 the Club was calling 6 West 48th Street home. They were front and center in support of the Landmarks Law, in 1964. They were among the civic organizations petitioning Governor Rockefeller for a minimum wage for New York State, $1.50/hr.

The 1960’s also saw the genesis of the Bard Awards for Excellence in Architecture and Urban Design, awarded for public buildings and private buildings in alternate years. It was brought to life and administered by architect, Leon Brand. It was named for Albert S Bard, attorney, civic activist and esteemed City Club member. He served on the Committee on Legislation and the Board of Trustees and was responsible for drafting the Bard Act (1956) paving the way for the NYC Landmarks Law. 

Through the years, members of the jury panel for these awards included I M Pei, Philip C Johnson, David Crane, Peter Blake, Rafael Vinoly, and Peter Samton (former Club president).

The Club created quite the controversy when they made a point of refusing to honor any public building (1963), citing nothing of merit. 

Among the many recipients were the reconstruction of the Central Park Zoo, Brooklyn Borough Hall renovation, the TKTS booth in Times Square and Columbia University’s Center for the Life Sciences. In 1990, the awards were given to four projects and four individuals, including former Mayor John Lindsey. The Bard Awards ended in the 1990s.

The City Club established the Distinguished New Yorker Dinner, an annual fundraiser, which honored New Yorkers making notable contributions to the civic landscape. Awardees included Andrew Heiskell, Robert Moses, Martha Graham, Jacob Potokofsky, and Mrs. Mary Lasker.

This decade also saw the birth of the Friday Afternoon Luncheons. Every week, except in summer months, the Club held a roundtable luncheon with impressive guest speakers. These luncheons were actually aired lived on WNYC until 1987. 

Another major controversy erupted when the radio station abruptly decided they could no longer carry these discussions live but taped them to air at a later time.

The 1970’s were busier still for the City Club but a more difficult time for New York City. It’s painful to report that the City Club only opened its doors to women in 1974. The Club enjoyed a burst of energy and distributed a host of reports on corruption, labor, policy and more. They held an 80th Anniversary dinner where they gave 23 “For New York” awards to residents who improved our quality of life. Among the recipients: Walter Cronkite, Ada Louise Huxtable, Joseph Papp, I M Pei, and Neil Simon.

The newsletter evolved to The Gadfly in 1978. They worked to heighten public awareness, as always, and highlighted important questions of the day to Elected Officials. The City Club Research Foundation established the Richard S Childs Lectureship in Municipal Administration in 1977. Childs, a reformer and civic leader, had served as President of the City Club from 1930 to 1942. This Lecture series lasted until 1992.

Sally Goodgold was named President of the Club in 1984. She was the first woman to hold this position and a dynamic addition to the Club. A native New Yorker, Ms. Goodgold was a devoted civic activist. She had been Chair of CB7 Manhattan, and chaired the transportation and steering committees. She was a constant attendee to the NYC Planning Commission hearings, was fiercely knowledgeable in zoning and land use regulations, and was a professor of urban planning at Queens College.

She helped boost the Friday roundtables, as she knew everyone there was to know. Ms. Goodgold was the recipient of many commendations from contemporary officials and numerous awards in her lifetime. Upon her passing, honoring her work for the betterment of the City, her casket was draped with the New York City flag.

2000-Present

The Friday luncheon roundtable continued through 2000, always bringing important NYC issues to the public’s attention. Unfortunately, by 2003 the financial backing and outstanding support of the past were waning. New members were few and far between, making all the prior work and events difficult to continue. Quietly, the City Club went into hibernation in 2009. It never technically dissolved but was definitely deep in sleep comforted with fond memories of past glories.

In 2013, the developer friendly Bloomberg Administration had put forth an unwise proposal for East Midtown Rezoning. Once again, this time wrested from its slumber by attorney Michael Gruen, lifelong civic activist and preservationist, the City Club awoke.

Re-energized, the City Club resumed its vigorous advocacy on behalf of  people of New York City, declaring, “The City Club is concerned that, all too often, the City’s governing bodies view city assets – including the dignity and beauty of its street scapes, its public buildings and, in the present context, development rights – as salable commodities, there to be cashed in to finance city operations or to make up for past failures to maintain capital infrastructure.”

The Club was off and running. Since its rebirth, the Club has been involved in some of the most important land use and preservation projects in the City.

  • Pier 55: The Club filed suit against the construction of Pier 55, citing lack of transparency and lack of proper environmental review.

  • Flushing Meadows Park: The Club sued to prevent construction of a 1.4 million sq. ft. shopping mall on designated parkland 

  • South Street Seaport:  The Club launched a campaign to prevent construction of a 50-story hotel over the East River adjacent to historic seaport.

  • Clocktower at 346 Broadway: The Club filed an Amicus Brief to the Court of Appeals, to protect the landmarked monumental clock atop 346 Broadway.

  • East Midtown Zoning: The Club attends committee meetings and hearings to improve the final propsal

  • Fort Greene Park: The Club is a joint petitioner to the SEQRA action to modify the redesign of the park.

  • Extell Tower, 50 West 66th Street (Manhattan): The Club opposes construction on behalf of New Yorkers City Club.  The proposed development violates zoning rules and miscalculated the proportions of the tower and podium to give it additional height, totaling 775 feet to become the tallest building on the Upper West Side.

Looking back through time, one can view the history of New York City through the history of the City Club. The most notable names in New York City working on the biggest issues of their day to make it the best it could be for all New Yorkers. 

We continue that good fight today and invite you to become of part of our history!

CONSULT THE CITY CLUB ARCHIVES - 1896-2005

Banner Photo Credit: "Jacob Riis addresses crowd at Mont Lawn" by Christian Herald is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

New York Botanical Garden, Lorillard Snuff Mill Photo credit: Ryan Somma

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