Archive for January, 2011

“A chilly day on Fifth Avenue, New York”

January 31, 2011

So states the caption on this 1905 postcard, part of the NYPL digital collection. Even then, black was New York’s most fashionable color.

I wonder what street they’re coming up on. Fifth Avenue looks awfully narrow wherever they are.

The World War II internment camp on Ellis Island

January 31, 2011

Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island.

But in the 1940s, Ellis Island served another purpose—it was the location of an internment camp that held about 8,000 German, Italian, and Japanese U.S. citizens, naturalized citizens, and resident foreigners.

["Alien enemies" having Christmas dinner in the Great Hall in 1943]

“In the fall of 1941, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Justice Department had begun planning to round up foreigners,” states a 2003 New York Times article.

“Letters show that the Attorney General’s office expected to arrest 600 people from New York and 200 from New Jersey per month and hold them on Ellis Island. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack, the roundup began. Internees were housed in the baggage and dormitory building behind the Great Hall.”

The war ended in 1945, and the camp was closed later that year.

Mollie Fancher: the famous “Brooklyn Enigma”

January 31, 2011

Once an ordinary schoolgirl living in Clinton Hill in the late 19th century, Mollie soon became a Victorian celebrity—known for her supposed mystic powers and ability to survive without food for years.

It all started in 1865, when Mollie, 18—already frail (as Victorian-era young ladies were supposed to be)—was dragged by a streetcar on Fulton Street after her hoop skirt got caught on the back of the car.

Bedridden at her brownstone home at 160 Gates Avenue, Mollie began exhibiting bizarre behavior—blindness, spasms, and what’s described as a “nine-year trance.”

When she finally awoke, oddly in almost perfect health, she claimed to be a clairvoyant who could see through walls, read people’s thoughts, and was in touch with the afterlife. Molly also insisted she could exist without eating.

“By the late 1870s Fancher’s food abstinence was as allegedly as awesome as her clairvoyance,” writes Joan Jacobs Brumberg in Fasting Girls. “In one six-month period, her recorded intake was four teaspoons of milk punch, two teaspoons of wine, one small banana, and a piece of cracker.”

Newspapers gleefully reported Molly’s wild claims. Scientists and the public weighed in as well.

But since Mollie refused to be examined, her claims couldn’t be proven.

Was she a psychic or a fraud? A medical freak or anorexic? The truth went to the grave with Mollie when she died in 1916—after 50 years in her bed on Gates Avenue.

Second Avenue and St. Marks Place in 1985

January 27, 2011

Not too much in this photo has changed, strangely.

There’s 60-year-old B&H Dairy a bit down the block to the left, and Gem Spa at right, holding court as it has for 70 years on the corner, selling newspapers, magazines, and ice cream.

The photo ran in the May 1985 issue of East Village arts newspaper the East Village Eye. What I’d give to see their entire 1985 East Village map!

How the poor fared on the city’s most wintry day

January 27, 2011

That would be February 10, 1899, according to the next day’s New York Times headline—a day when the thermometer went from six degrees below zero at 6 a.m. to a relatively balmy six degrees above by 2 p.m.

Though the Times chronicled stuck ferries, house fires begun by overheated stoves (put out by firemen like the one at left, in an 1899 NYPL illustration), and men with mustaches “festooned with icicles,” much of the piece details the suffering of the poor.

“The really tragic side of all was seen in the charitable institutions and hospitals, which were filled to overflowing with the human derelicts beaten in during the night by the elements or found dying in the streets and taken to shelter by policemen.

“The biting west wind sought out every nook and cranny in the city and drove hundreds of half-starved and homeless wanderers to the shelters and charitable institutions and police stations.

[A line of homeless, hungry men outside the 25th Street Municipal Lodging House in 1917]

“There were 344 men, women, and children cared for during Thursday night at the city lodging house on East 23rd Street. The majority of the men had no overcoats. Some had only ragged undershirts on under their coats.

“The police have had orders for several days to watch closely for intoxicated men and women, or for persons in doorways and areas. . . . almost as many women were found as men, and not all had been drinking. Some will be maimed for life by the cold.”

East Harlem’s upper-class tenement names

January 27, 2011

Tenement buildings all over New York have names—some after politicians or presidents, others for girls and women whose relationships to the builders have been lost to the ages.

And strangely, several tenements in East Harlem have elegant, urbane monikers. Perhaps the turn-of-the-century developers selected names meant to attract a more well-off, aspirational class of renters?

The Boulevard is on Lexington and 124th Street. “Boulevard” has such an upper-crust ring to it. Maybe Lexington Avenue was supposed to rival the tree-lined Boulevard on the West Side.

The Newport on East 110th Street—it harkens back to the posh Newport, Rhode Island of the Vanderbilts, Astors, and other wealthy New Yorkers.

The Centennial, appropriately named after the year it was built, arrived a little before the tenements in the rest of the neighborhood.

It sounds triumphant and grand there on Third Avenue and 116th Street. Too bad the upper part of the building is rundown and bricked up.

Leaving Bloomingdale’s on the Third Avenue El

January 24, 2011

Painter Lionel S. Reiss’ 1946 watercolor, “Going Home (Near Bloomingdale’s and the 59th Street Elevated),” captures a crowd of mothers, shop girls, laborers, and businessmen ascending the packed staircase.

I love the piece of the Chop Suey sign on the right—a vestige of the New York of a long-ago time.

Did the Underground Railroad stop in Chelsea?

January 24, 2011

The underground Railroad didn’t skip New York City.

Safe havens for runaway slaves existed in Brooklyn—such as Brooklyn Heights’ Plymouth Church. And the John Bowne House, in Flushing, was also rumored to have been a hideout.

But in Manhattan, the only known Underground Railroad site that still exists is the row house at 339 West 29th Street (Ivy-covered in 1932).

Built in the 1840s on what was then called Lamartine Place, number 339 was owned by James S. Gibbons and his staunch abolitionist wife, Abigail Hopper Gibbons.

According to the Landmarks Preservation Committee Report that declared the house and its neighbors the Lamartine Historic District:

“In his memoirs, the American lawyer and diplomat Joseph Hodges Choate who was a friend of the Gibbons family recollects dining with the Gibbons and a fugitive slave at No. 339 in 1855, citing the residence as a stop on the Underground Railroad.”

No. 339 (in the center, under scaffolding and a new facade) was also attacked and burned in the 1863 Draft Riots, when roving mobs of New Yorkers upset about new draft laws killed African-Americans.

A house with history like that can’t escape scrutiny—which is probably why the city ordered the current owner to tear down the illegal fifth floor that was recently added.

Old phone exchanges spotted in Crown Heights

January 23, 2011

Ephemeral reader Sheena passed along these photos she recently took of two old-school signs featuring pre-1960s two-letter phone exchanges. Both come from Crown Heights.

The DE in this F. Goldsmith & Sons sign could stand for Dewey or Defender. What those two words have to do with Brooklyn, I have no idea.

NI is for Nightingale—and Michael Cerverizzo & Sons is still in business on Flatlands Avenue.

A peek at the long-shuttered City Hall station

January 19, 2011

Shut down and decommissioned in 1945, the glorious City Hall subway station—the first station to open in 1904—is occasionally accessible to the public via MTA tours.

An Ephemeral reader descended beneath City Hall last month and took some lovely shots of the elegant subwaytechture: gorgeous tiles, arches, curves, and skylights.

The ghostly platform and tubes of today look pretty much the same as they did in this vintage postcard.

Well, except for the hulking token booth–looking structure in the corner….


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