Archive for November, 2010

Is this really Bowling Green in 1776?

November 29, 2010

This French print depicts an event that occurred on the eve of the Revolutionary War at Bowling Green, way downtown at the end of Broadway.

After George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read, citizens and soldiers defiantly tore apart a statue of King George that had been erected there by colonists seven years earlier.

That actually happened, true. But so much of this print seem totally off because—in absence of any visual description or knowledge of what New York looked like back then—the print maker invented so many of the details.

“The statue of King George was in fact an equestrian piece, not a standing figure; the oddly turbaned, half-naked ‘Indian’ rioters resembled no known American patriots,” explains the caption to the print in New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns and James Sanders.

“And the surrounding buildings were those of a grand European capital rather than the modest brick dwellings of colonial New York.”

The Italian Labor Center’s 14th Street carvings

November 29, 2010

Where Beauty Bar attracts a crowd now was once the headquarters of the Italian Labor Center, at 231 East 14th Street.

Built in 1919, when this corner of the East Village was a mini Little Italy, it also served as the home base of the Cloakmakers union.

The old marble sign is still there, flanked by two interesting bas reliefs that seem to oppose each other.

The carving on the right depicts a man (a worker, with a shovel), woman, and baby seemingly content with no drama.

On the left, however, the woman is suckling a snake, her hair electrified and her face contorted in pain. Her child is scrambling from her in terror. Her husband is in the background, hard at work digging or plowing, oblivious to the turmoil.

“The carvings are probably the work of Onorio Ruotolo, poet and sculptor, whose works in that period dealt with the theme of workers and their resistance to exploitation,” states The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism.

The curious history of the city’s Rat Island

November 29, 2010

Dwarfed by tiny City Island and lilliputian Hart Island (New York City’s Potter’s Field) off the Bronx, Rat Island is currently uninhabited.

But this 2.5 acre hump of bedrock has a long, strange history.

Purchased from Native Americans in 1654 by the Pell family, the island’s name supposedly stems from the inmates then jailed on Hart Island.

When inmates—who were nicknamed rats—escaped, they swam to Rat Island first before making a go at reaching City Island.

By the 1800s, it was the location of the “Pelham Pesthouse,” a yellow fever hospital that quarantined 40 people.

New York bought it in 1888, though it’s not clear why, since the city didn’t put it to any use. Until the 1930s a group of artists and writers lived there.

Eventually it went back into private ownership—and last year was actually up for sale. The price? Just $300,000.

Where was New York’s “German Play Ground?”

November 24, 2010

While browsing the Museum of the City of New York’s Byron collection online archive, I came across the photo from 1903.

Interestingly, instead of going by the park’s real name, it’s mysteriously labeled the “German Play Ground.”

Must be Tompkins Square Park, which was heavily German at the time—so much so that the neighborhood was known as “Kleindeutschland,” or Little Germany.

Of course, lots of neighborhoods were German, such as Bushwick, known for its breweries. But here, I think the winding paths and benches give it away.

A Chelsea hotel room for just $2.25 a night

November 24, 2010

“Modern accommodations at moderate rates” proclaims the back of this colorful postcard, circa the 1940s or 1950s.”One stop from Penn Station.”

It’s an ad for the Hotel Cornish Arms, on 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

I can’t find much on the hotel, but a reader comment from an earlier post explained that the hotel really did welcome new Cornish arrivals.

It certainly didn’t have the architectural charm and boho appeal of another hotel down 23rd Street, the Chelsea.

Here’s an older view of the Cornish Arms, from 1933, with the gorgeous but long-gone Grand Opera House on the corner. Today the building still stands; it’s now the Broadmoor Apartments.

Brooklyn: the borough that breeds comic giants

November 24, 2010

Ever notice how many legendary comedians—especially comedians who are actually funny—hail from the county of Kings?

Like Jackie Gleason. Born Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr., at 364 Chauncey Street in Bed-Stuy in 1916, he attended P.S. 73 and Bushwick High School.

The Three Stooges also launched in Brooklyn. Moe (born Moses Horwitz) Howard and his two brothers, Curly (Jerome) and Shemp (Samuel), grew up in Bensonhurst in the early 1900s.

And of course, Woody Allen, aka Allan Stewart Konigsberg, made a career out of mining his Avenue K childhood for laughs.

He was a student at P.S. 99 on East 10th Street and Avenue K and Midwood High School.

P.S. 99 must have made quite an impression on him. Allen gave Mia Farrow’s character in Zelig the name Eudora Fletcher—the real name of P.S. 99’s terrifying spinster school principal in the 1940s.

City Hall Park and the rise of Newspaper Row

November 21, 2010

It’s no surprise that in the 19th century, all the big New York newspapers made sure they had office space as close to City Hall as possible. That’s where all the action was.

Which is how a small length of Park Row opposite City Hall earned its nickname.

On the left with the dome at the top is the New York World/Pulitzer Building. Next is the headquarters for the New York Tribune.

The one at right housed the The New York Times, before they moved uptown to Longacre—renamed Times–Square.

City Hall Park has a neat history. Adjacent to the old Collect Pond, it started as a 17th century commons where colonists took their livestock for water.

It’s been the site of rioting for 300 years now—and writer Jack London’s temporary home in the first decade of the 20th century.

Broadway and East 10th Street: 1911 vs. 2011

November 21, 2010

“Here Broadway approaches Union Square from the south, with what is probably the midday crowd on its wide sidewalks,” states the caption of this photo, published in a fascinating book of photos, New York Then and Now.

Sure, the businesses lining this stretch of the city’s longest street have changed in 100 years; see the signs on the left for a few furriers.

The hotel on the left is the fashionable St. Denis, built in 1852 by James Renwick, better known as the architect who designed Grace Church, at right, in the 1840s. (He was also behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)

Broadway teems with trolleys going in both ways. It’s like a game of Frogger. No wonder pedestrians were always dodging them—not always with success.

The same view exactly a century later shows that this corner is still prime real estate, and many of the buildings survive, with nail salons, delis, restaurants, and boutiques renting space.

Too bad you can no longer see the Flatiron Building from this vantage point.

Upper Manhattan phone exchange mysteries

November 21, 2010

Tropy Washing Machines is a little neighborhood shop on 117th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.

The sign is sweetly old-timey, but the AT exchange? It probably stood for Atlantic, according to this chart, but it’s a mystery.

Same with the TR exchange on this sign for Alexander Plumbing. The sign comes from an apartment building on Edgecomb Avenue in Harlem.

TRafalger covered parts of Manhattan, TRiangle was the exchange for a section of Brooklyn, and TRemont, of course, part of the Bronx.

The wall that divided the earliest New Yorkers

November 19, 2010

Here it is, the namesake wall of Wall Street, depicted on a colorful mosaic at the (where else?) Wall Street subway station.

Built in the 1640s at the northernmost boundary of the young settlement, the half-mile wall was the idea of Dutch colonists, who wanted to keep British settlers and Native Americans out of New Amsterdam.

It didn’t exactly work—the English took over in 1664. The wall came down just before the 18th century.


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