The bustling neighborhood, as diverse as New York itself, includes some of the city’s most popular restaurants in a variety of price ranges and cuisines; a dynamic retail environment with a profusion of fashion, beauty, and home furnishings stores; superb educational institutions and such architectural highlights as the fabled Flatiron Building, the Metropolitan Life and New York Life buildings, and the exquisite New York State Appellate Courthouse. A burgeoning residential community is adding its own new vitality to this historic neighborhood. The district is easily accessed by a range of public transportation options and is just a short stroll from either Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station.

So look around explore, enjoy, and Discover Flatiron! 

 

Flatiron History

Discover Flatiron: James Weldon Johnson, Writer and Civil Rights Activist

In honor of Black History Month, the Flatiron Partnership takes a look at the trailblazing ties of civil rights activist and writer James Weldon Johnson in the neighborhood. Johnson’s legacy includes his vision for the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1917, and composing a campaign song for presidential candidate and Flatiron native Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

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Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt Center

When James Weldon Johnson and his younger brother Rosamond left their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida for New York City in 1901, they set out for careers as Broadway music songwriters. The siblings had been “raised without a sense of limitations amid a society focused on segregating African Americans,” notes the website, Biography. Their father James was a freeborn Virginian hotel head waiter, and their Bahamian mother Helen was a teacher and musician.

Johnson, who was born in 1871, graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. The following year, he launched The Daily American newspaper, and in 1897, became the first African American to pass Florida’s bar exam since the Reconstruction era, notes Britanncia. Rosamond, who was two years younger and a music prodigy, had studied at the New England Conservatory. The pair’s interests in writing and music lead to their collaboration “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a poem written by Johnson and set to music by Rosamond.

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The brothers then teamed with Robert Cole to write theater tunes. In a five-year span, “they composed some 200 songs for Broadway and other musical productions, including such hit numbers as “Under the Bamboo Tree,” “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground,” and “Didn’t He Ramble,” notes The Poetry Foundation. “The trio, who soon became known as “Those Ebony Offenbachs,” avoided writing for racially exploitative minstrel shows but often found themselves obliged to present simplified and stereotyped images of rural Black life to suit white audiences. But the Johnsons and Cole also produced works like the six-song suite titled The Evolution of Ragtime that helped document and expose important Black musical idioms.” 

During this period, the 1904 presidential campaign was also underway. Johnson had been recruited to become chairman of the house committee for New York City’s newly formed Colored Republican Club on West 53rd Street. “The campaign to elect Theodore Roosevelt to succeed himself in the Presidency was just beginning to warm up,” wrote Johnson in his 1933 autobiography Along This Way. Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, was also a New York City native who had grown up in a brownstone located on East 20th Street. When asked by one of the club officials to “give us something good to sing” for Roosevelt’s campaign, the team of Cole and Johnson delivered “You’re All Right Teddy” within days, reported The Sun on July 31, 1904.

“To appreciate that song you have to hear it with music,” according to The Sun about the melody’s presentation before a club audience.“There is a jubilee shout about the chorus which carries you off your feet. The quartet sang the words and the club chorus of fifty voices came into the chorus, and by the third repetition everyone was singing it. They encored and encored until the quartet ran out of words and [James] Johnson had to improvise on the spot. Then the audience tore the shingles down with applause.” Next came the candidate’s seal of approval. “Rosamond carefully made a manuscript copy, which was sent to Mr. Roosevelt,” remembered James. “He wrote complimenting us on having written ‘a bully good song.’”

Roosevelt was elected and upon his return to the White House, James was soon offered positions in the administration. Reportedly fluent in French and Spanish, Johnson was selected to serve as consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1906, followed by Corinto, Nicaragua in 1909. He resigned from the latter post in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was elected President, and reportedly on the belief opportunities for advancement were limited due to racism.

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Photo Credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

In 1916, Johnson was named afield secretaryfor the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Johnson worked at opening new branches and expanding membership,” notes naacp.org. “In 1920, the NAACP appointed him executive secretary. In this position, he was able to bring attention to racism, lynching, and segregation.” Johnson’s efforts included launching the idea for the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade on July 28, 1917 because of racially motivated acts of violence against Black people in East St. Louis, Illinois on July 2nd.

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Photo Credit: Miami Herald

The Fifth Avenue march began at 59th Street and concluded at 23rd Street. “On July 28, nine or ten thousand Negroes marched silently down Fifth Avenue to the sound only of muffled drums,” recalled Johnson. “The procession was headed by children, some of them not older than six, dressed in white. These were followed by the women dressed in white, and bringing up the rear came the men in dark clothes. The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but I judge, never one stranger than this; certainly, never one more impressive. The parade moved in silence and was watched in silence. Among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.”

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Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

After 10 years at the NAACP, Johnson resigned to pursue other job opportunities. They included a creative writing professorship at Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1930, and as a visiting professor on the same subject at New York University beginning in 1934. Over the years, Johnson had either written or edited numerous works of literature such as his 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and the 1930 book Black Manhattan, which detailed African American life during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Photo Credit: Johnson Weldon Johnson Papers

Johnson was also a Harlem resident and had married Grace Nail, the daughter of a real estate developer, in 1910. Said Johnson of the time the couple first met, “She carried herself like a princess.” Sadly, on June 26, 1938 when the Johnsons were on vacation at their Wiscasset, Maine summer home, their car was hit by a train at a grade crossing. Johnson, who was then 67, had been killed and his wife suffered severe injuries.

Two days later following the loss of James Weldon Johnson, The New York Times noted that “few lives are so rich in various experience and accomplishment as his, so tragically ended.” In a pledge about his life as a Black man, the writer and civil rights activist once wrote: “I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.”

Header Photo: James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts
Thumbnail Photo: Poetry Foundations

Flatiron Faces

Flatiron Faces: Nina Cooke John, Principal & Founder, Studio Cooke John

Meet Nina Cooke John, Principal & Founder of Studio Cooke John, this year’s winner of the Flatiron Public Plaza Holiday Installation presented by the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership and Van Alen Institute.

Point of Action is the first installation to appear on both the Flatiron North and South Public Plazas as the centerpiece of the Partnership’s “23 Days of Holiday Cheer” programming and will be in display from November 23rd through January 1st. Cooke John’s design invites visitors to contemplate the experience of seeing one another—and being seen. Once the viewer steps out of their usual routine and into the installation’s threshold, there are multiple chances to connect with other viewers and passersby. 

1. Congratulations on being selected as this year’s winner of the Flatiron Public Plaza Holiday Design Competition for your concept titled Point of Action. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?

I was absolutely thrilled to be given the opportunity to develop ideas for such an important location in the city.

2. Point of Action will appear on both the North and South Public Plazas. Visitors will be able to contemplate the experience of seeing one another—and being seen–on both sides of 23rd Street. You’ve indicated that society is now at a threshold with the pandemic and that Point of Action could possibly make people think about how we connect to others. Tell us more about the piece and what do you hope the public’s takeaway will be when experiencing your installation?

New Yorkers hail from all over the country and the world, are of differing economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, but rarely connect with each other as they rub shoulders in the subway and on the streets. Making eye contact is considered one of the worst things you can do. How can we care about the issues that don’t affect us if we don’t connect to those who are? Engaging in public art provides an opportunity for city dwellers to pause their everyday routines and take a detour from their usual paths.

Point of Action provides the space for contemplation as viewers unravel themselves from their busy lives. As they engage with each of the nine units, they step into the spotlight. While in the spotlight, they can be more easily seen and connect with passersby, as well as others also in the spotlight throughout the installation. The spotlight is also a threshold. It becomes a place of connection and reflection, a point from which they can decide to take action on any of the many issues they’ve long promised themselves they would as they move back out into their everyday routines.

3. You’re the Principal and Founder of Studio Cooke John, a multidisciplinary design workspace located in Montclair, New Jersey and Manhattan. Tell us more about what led to opening your own practice. 

I started working for myself once I had children. Having my own firm gave me the flexibility to work at whatever hours I needed to, while actively engaging with my children’s school life. It also allowed me to develop my practice around my own interests.

4. You’re a native of Kingston, Jamaica and studied architecture at Cornell and Columbia. In addition, you teach at Parsons the New School of Design. Can you offer advice to those who may be interested in architecture, design, or urban planning? 

Anyone interested in studying architecture, design, or urban planning should get as much practice as possible with being creative. This doesn’t mean you have to take architecture classes. If you love photography, art, or painting graphics on your friends’ sneakers, keep doing it. Those skills of exploring your creativity in multiple media will serve you better than anything else. 

5. Speaking of architecture and urbanism, Flatiron/NoMad is well-known globally for its striking buildings and public spaces. What’s your favorite building or architectural element here in the neighborhood and why? And, do you have a favorite park or public space that you can share (anywhere in the world)?

The Flatiron Building is certainly iconic. I particularly admire how the architect decided to own the odd shape of the lot and build into it, instead of trying to figure out how to compromise the geometry. I love public parks around the city and the world. When you stop and spend time in a park, you feel like you are a part of that city. When I worked in the West Village, my friends and I loved to sit and have lunch in the tiny park close to our office. We used to also go to jazz concerts at Grant’s TombThe High Line is great for the architectural detailing, art, and the variety of experiences that you can get as you walk along from a new vantage point above the city. Washington Square Park is great because of the vibrancy added by performers. They are all different and great for their unique characteristics.

6. In addition to visiting Point of Action, what else is a "must-see” or “must-do" in the neighborhood? 

There is great shopping in the area. I’ve always loved Eataly, not only the shops and restaurants downstairs but the rooftop as well. There are also a great variety of shops heading downtown via Fifth Avenue. I frequent the tile and bathroom fixture shops in the area often when I’m shopping for clients, especially Porcelanosa

7. When it’s time to leave the office or worksite and grab a bite in Flatiron, where’s your go-to? And your favorite dish?

I actually worked out of the Wing Flatiron for a while before we had to lockdown. They had an amazing salad with grilled jerk chicken that I was a fan of. Eating that on the roof was a favorite pastime.

8. Finally, choose three words to describe the Flatiron District.

Nexus. Vibrant. Interchange.

Photo credit: Ball & Albanese

Walking Tour

Weekly Free Walking Tour

Join our professional guides on a 90-minute journey through this vibrant neighborhood, viewing some of the City’s most notable landmarks.

Click here for more information.

What People Are Saying see

“Village meets midtown.”

When asked to describe the Flatiron District in three words

Brandon Stanton
photographer, Humans of New York

“It's a three-way tie. The architecture. The vibe. The food.”

When asked about his favorite thing about the Flatiron District

Marc Glosserman
Founder & CEO Hill Country Hospitality + local resident

“You are building a community like no other!”

Excerpt from remarks at the 8th Annual Meeting of the Flatiron 23rd Street Partnership

Gale A. Brewer
Manhattan Borough President

Quick Stats

22M+

Square feet of commercial real estate

39M+

Total 2018 MTA riders for 23rd Street (1,6,N,W,F,M) and 28th St (1,6,N,R) stations

6,500

Hotel rooms

7,563

Taxi drop offs per weekday in 2017

3.3+

Dollars invested in the Public Plazas by the BID

160K

Citi Bike trips originated or ended within Flatiron in June 2018

580

Ground floor business in the Flatiron District