Places that Matter

Webster Hall

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
A popular concert and dance hall since 1886
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Since 1886, whatever New Yorkers have been doing in public, they've been doing at Webster Hall. Between its four stories, steep stairs, winding passageways, and rooms and ballrooms of every size and shape, it's hard to imagine a use to which the space could not be put -- and indeed has been. Webster Hall's diverse use over the years is a prime example of the ways public gathering spaces have been used in New York City.

Webster Hall's first proprietor was Charles Goldstein, who not only ran Webster Hall but lived there, too, on the ground floor with his family. His 1898 New York Times obituary reported: "He was forty-two years old, and was born in Poland. He came to this country with his parents when he was three years old, and was educated in the east side public schools. He learned the cigar-making trade, and in course of time became a cigar manufacturer. Then he went into the business of constructing meeting and dancing halls....Thirteen years ago he built Webster Hall." 

It's likely that Goldstein was of German descent. Hiring the services of architect Charles Rentz, he built Webster Hall at the northern edge and in the waning days of Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. This enclave of German-born immigrants and their children constituted what the historian Stanley Nadel called the "first of the giant urban foreign language settlements which came to typify American cities by the end of the nineteenth century." Kleindeutschland extended over much of the Lower East Side, though its most heavily German American section (64 percent by 1875) was in its northwest quadrant, the Seventeenth Ward, where Webster Hall was located. According to Nadel, German New York was instrumental in the development of labor unions as well as modern American socialism, so it was fitting that Webster Hall, along with many other public and private spaces, hosted politically inspired gatherings. 

Located in the midst of the working-class, immigrant Lower East Side, the rentable rooms of Webster Hall offered labor unions and many types of political organizations spaces of all sizes in which to gather. The doings of socialists, anarchists, and all manner of unionists were once considered news, reported on by the New York Times, the Jewish Daily Forward, the Staats-Zeitlung, and scores of other newspapers- large and small - that kept New Yorkers informed of the world.

Webster Hall hosted the founding convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914. Two year earlier, Margaret Sanger, already known for her public stand on birth control, made big news at Webster Hall. Ten thousand textile workers in Lawrence, MA, struck to protest the lowering of wages after a new state law shorted the workweek. Strike leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and William Haywood of the International Workers of the World (aka the IWW or the Wobblies), had arranged to send the strikers' children to other cities to be cared for by sympathetic families. Margaret Sanger led 119 strikers' children from the Manhattan train station to Webster Hall, where they were fed and matched with caretaker families. The children's exodus won public sympathy, especially when Lawrence police were photographed beating several women and children at the train station before they left. By mid-March, all four demands of the strikers had been wet.

The four Canadian Ballinger brothers plus one silent partner who own Webster Hall in 2006 recognize that their property has a history. "This is where New Yorkers came to gather," says Lon Ballinger, "for union meetings, for weddings, for social gatherings, for political causes, for anniversaries and celebrations. It's always been a gathering of the people of New York."

Webster Hall hosted politically salient gatherings, but it was started in the 1880s as a place for entertainment. In one form or another, it has maintained that tradition for much of its existence. In the 1940s and 1950s, Latin music greats Tito Puente and Tito Rodriquez both performed and held recording sessions at Webster Hall, and a 1949 Spanish language newspaper reported that Webster Hall was "muy popular entre los hispanos." Ukrainians also used the Hall for local events. And in the 1950s folk hootenannies there with singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie led to the founding of the legendary folk music magazine Sing Out! In the 1970s the fraternal organization of the Galician Spanish Community of Greater New York made its home here for a while, running a restaurant, holding meetings and social events, and renting to other groups like the Balkan Arts Center (now known as the Center for Traditional Music and Dance).Renamed the Ritz in the 1980s, the space reverted to the name Webster Hall in the 1990s and is still a popular concert and dance hall.

In the nineteenth century and throughout much of the twentieth, New York City was filled with halls for hire. Halls for hire have helped sustain the city's civic life, offering large spaces for use by many different social and political groups. These were places where ordinary people could afford to rent space to accommodate their public affairs. Already in 1938 the Times called it a landmark, but perhaps the opportunity to gather is what counts. The more one looks into the history of the city, the more it becomes clear that people enthusiastically used such spaces to participate in cultural and civic life, to make their mark. Sometimes they even made national history. Webster Hall no longer fulfills this role, and few remain of the hundreds of halls for hire that once dotted the city's landscape. But Webster Hall still exists with its name intact and structure more or less unchanged. It marks a time in New York City when people of modest means could choose from among a wealth of places to gather. We wonder whether, today, our society isn't poorer for the poverty of places which we can call our own.

 

 

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