Autumn in the city: the weather cools down and New Yorkers dress up; kids go back to school and tourists go back to the Midwest (and wherever). Fresh fruit and vegetable stands really stand out come the fall, and who can resist a fresh apple from the stacked pyramid at the local farmers market? Autumn is apple season after all, nowhere as naturally as New York. Hell, we owe our name to the fantastic fruit. But it wasn’t always so simple...
The first apple tree in North America was planted in Massachusetts by pilgrims in the early 1600s, a quarter century before the Dutch landed here in 1626. However, New York City can lay claim to the first commercial apple tree nursery, the William Prince Nursery, located in Flushing, in 1737. In 1758, a crop of Newton Pippins, probably from William Prince, was exported to London by special request of Benjamin Franklin, abroad and engaged in radical politics. This shipment across the ocean became the first exportation of fruit in North America. And in truly obscure longevity history, the oldest living apple tree in America was planted by Governor Pieter Stuyvesant in 1647, in what is today the East Village, at 13th street and 3rd avenue. The son-of-a-bitch (the tree, not Stuyvesant) was still bearing fruit until it was struck by a derailed trolley-car in 1866.
However, all this ephemera doesn’t become truly personal until it gets local: how and why our city got blessed with the nickname “The Big Apple.” It all comes down to the media. In 1924 a sports columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph named John J. FitzGerald called his racing report "Around the Big Apple." He picked up the phrase from a group of African-American horse stable hands, who were employed in the various racetracks around NYC. In the 1920s, NY was the 3rd largest horseracing town in the country: Louisville, KY (home of the Derby) was #1, New Orleans was #2, NY was #3. Because they called New Orleans the "Big Easy," because horses like apples, because the big money was here, these black stable hands referred to the city as the Big Apple, kind of like the Big Racetrack or the Big Gametown. The phrase caught on in select circles, but not with the general public.
Then in the 1930s jazz musicians started to pick up on the phrase. In the 30s, NY was the capital of the jazz world. Jazz aficionados would visit from all over the world to hop in and check out jazz hotspots in Harlem, on Swing Street (E 52nd between 6th & 5th) and in Greenwich Village. In jazz slang, “sugar” means “money.” The common refrain could be heard all over the city: “How'd you do last night?” “I made some sweet sugar.” An apple is the fruit with the highest natural sugar content. So where do you make the most sugar? In the Big Apple. This caught on slightly, and “Big Apple” lent its name to a nightclub at W 135th and 7th, a popular dance craze in the late 1930s and a film short released in 1938, all riding the wave of popularity. Cab Calloway once defined the Big Apple as “the big town, the main stem, Harlem!” But outside of the jazz scene, no one heard the phrase, and after WWII, it vanished once again.
Cut to 25 years later, the city in big trouble. From the mid 40s through the end of the 60s, 1.6 million people, mostly affluent white families, split for the suburbs and the exodus is called White Flight. In 1971, at the tail end of the Lindsay administration, Charles Gillett, the savvy President of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, conceives a strategy: convince people that NYC is best represented by an apple — juicy, plump, healthy, wholesome. Gillett probably found the phrase in an old tourism book from the 30s, then dusted it off and conquered the world with it: t-shirts, sweaters, bumper stickers, lapel pins, maps, billboards, souvenirs, etc. It took some time; we had to get through an additional 30 years of rollercoaster urban renewal. But today, New York City is among the safest large cities in the world. Try and remember all of this the next time you chomp down on a Jonas Gold or an Empire. Good for you, good for the city!
Matt Levy is a licensed NYC tour guide and Junior Partner of The Levys' Unique New York!, a business he runs with his Dad (www.vintagenytours.com);
they are proud to be the only family of licensed NYC tour guides. While
not leading tours, Matt likes long walks on the beach, kittens,
reading, writing, cooking, cooking with a certain pretty girl, dancing,
dancing with a certain pretty girl, talking, talking with a certain
pretty girl, and building tall bikes.