Jan 14, 2009

Chester A. Arthur's Neighborhood, and A Hint of Vindaloo Masala

While walking through the northern section of Madison Square Park, you may have encountered the striking statue of Chester A. Arthur (1830-1886), the 21st President. The VP in James Garfield's administration, Arthur assumed office upon the tragic death of the incumbent. An attorney named Charles Julius Guiteau (displaying a nutty flamboyance while later on trial) assassinated Garfield on July 2, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station by shooting the President in the back. Because of sorry medical care at the time, Garfield suffered for several months before dying. At that point, Arthur took the oath of office. He did so over at his house at 123 Lexington, an area in Midtown south. The park sculpture of Arthur is by George Edwin Bissell (1839-1920), but the tree hut depicted above, the one in the tree to the left of Arthur, is the work of contemporary artist Tadashi Kawamata.

Arthur did some good things. A native of Vermont, he moved to New York in 1853 and opened up a law practice. An abolitionist, he assumed civil rights cases, including representing Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a woman who was denied seating on a streetcar because of her race. During the Civil War he was in charge of providing clothing and supplies for Union troops in the area. After the war, however, he got mixed up with the spoils system, and as the powerful customs collector, he was charged with counts of corruption. President Hayes asked him to leave his post. Later, as President, he ran a clean administration, signing the Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, and he vetoed a bill that would have limited the immigration of Chinese laborers.

For most of his life in New York, Arthur lived at 123 Lexington, near the intersection of E. 28th Street, and walking over to see this National Historic Landmark on an unassuming stretch of Lexington is worth one's time, because the air smells so good. Many of the businesses in this neighborhood south of Murray Hill are Indian restaurants, although restaurants of other national cuisines are plentiful. There's nothing much Chester Arthur-related at this address, except for a plaque in the window, but you have to go inside. Kalustyan's, the business that occupies the site, as far as I know, is the best spice store in the entire world. See the store website here. No joke that they carry over 4,000 varieties of spices, herbs, etc., because as soon as I walked into the store I forgot all about the fact that Arthur took the oath of office at this very address. I was fixated on different types of peppers and chutneys and chocolate-covered orange peels and hot sauces and what I was going to cook for dinner.

Image of Tadashi Kawamata, Tree Huts, and Chester A. Arthur statue, Madison Square Park; 123 Lexington, Chester A. Arthur National Historic Landmark and Kalustyan's. For more about Tree Huts, visit this website. More about the walk in this neighborhood will follow in a future post.

This walk is the fifth in a series of Presidential-themed walks exploring the role of U. S. Presidents in New York City and in celebration of the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

1 comment:

larry myers said...

award winning off broadway playwright larry myers has written
"reincarnation of president chester a. arthur"
an exploration of the race relations-conscious, portly, dapper, widower president