The Tiny "Spite Triangle" That Marks a Century-Old Grudge Against New York City

Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On an otherwise unremarkable stretch of sidewalk in New York City’s West Village, a tiny tile mosaic serves as David Hess’s century-old middle finger to City Hall. As cartoonist Chaz Hutton recently alerted us on Twitter, what was once the city’s tiniest piece of private property is the result of the angry collision of historic quirks in New York City’s street grid, turn-of-the-century city planning decisions, and intense grudge-holding. And you can still trespass on it today.

While most of New York City’s streets are laid out in a neatly ordered grid, Lower Manhattan—the oldest part of the city—is, cartographically speaking, kind of a mess. That’s because the city didn’t implement an official master plan for the layout of new streets until 1811, more than a century after the Dutch established a settlement at the southern tip of the island. The earliest-built parts of the city still maintain some of the quirks of a pre-plan settlement where property owners built their own streets with nearly no official oversight, resulting in a haphazard array of oddly shaped, variably sized blocks and narrow, crooked streets.

The bit of property now known as Hess’s triangle is located in this latter part of Manhattan, where the street grid is still a little wonky. It was even more so in the 1910s, when the city decided it needed to extend Seventh Avenue, a wide thoroughfare that was first built as part of that landmark 1811 master plan. In order to make room for traffic and for the construction of a new subway line, the city condemned an 11-block stretch of the West Village, demolishing hundreds of buildings starting in 1913. The extension was finished in 1916.

A 19th century map of properties in the West Village
A survey of New York City property from 1897. You can see the plot labeled "Vorhes" in the center.

Because of the unique layout of the area, though, the new road didn’t cut through every block equally. Some property owners only lost only a corner of their buildings, while other structures were completely razed. Lots that were once full-sized became awkward triangles of property. Such was the case for Hess, who owned an apartment building called the Voorhis (or Voorhees, or Vorhes, depending on who you ask) that stood right in the middle of where the city wanted the road to run. Despite Hess’s best efforts to hold out, the city seized his property. Or, most of it. Though his building was demolished and the street built, the city’s surveyors accidentally missed a piece of it.

By 1922, Hess had already died, but his heirs weren’t about to give the city the land, no matter how useless it was. Instead, they laid down a mosaic of tiles inside the two-foot-wide triangle to serve as a reminder that it was private property, not just another stretch of sidewalk. It’s now known as Hess’s Triangle. The tiles read: “Property of the Hess estate which has never been dedicated for public purpose.”

The tiny plot—barely big enough for one person to stand on—is still there at 110 Seventh Avenue, sitting in front of what is now a cigar shop outside a subway entrance. You can even see it on Google Maps. It no longer belongs to the Hess estate, but it’s still private property—the Hess family sold it to the owner of the building next door in 1938.

[h/t Chaz Hutton]

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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