The East Side’s long-gone Gas House District

“The gas-house district is not a pleasant place in the daytime, much less at night,” explained a 1907 article in Outlook magazine.

That’s partly because the neighborhood, centered in the teens and 20s on the far east side of Manhattan, looked pretty grim: dominated by giant gas storage tanks lining the East River.

The streets didn’t smell so great either, considering that the tanks sprang leaks occasionally.

The grittiness of the Gas House District kept tenement rents low and made it a magnet for poor immigrant Irish in the mid-19th century, then Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Armenians by the 1920s.

But it also attracted a bad element. Crime was high, and it was home base of the Gas House Gang, which committed a reported 30 holdups every night on East 18th Street alone around the turn of the century.

Change was coming though. By the 1930s, most of the storage tanks were gone, and the development of the then-East River Drive opened up the ugly streets to development.

Soon, it was deemed the perfect place to put Met Life’s new middle-class housing developments, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

In 1945, 3,000 families were moved out of the Gas House District, their homes bulldozed. By 1947, the neighborhood was paved over and lost to the ages.

[Right photo: East 20th Street looking toward First Avenue by Berenice Abbott, 1938]

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20 Responses to “The East Side’s long-gone Gas House District”

  1. Andrew L. Says:

    This can’t be 1st Ave in 1908, 1st Ave had an elevated railroad running down it between E Houston and 23rd St until 1942.

  2. Andrew L. Says:

    Which you can clearly see in the second photo.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Hmm. The photo is labeled First Avenue. Could it be in the upper 20s? Where Peter Cooper Village is today?

    http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ggbain/item/ggb2004003087/

    • T.J. Connick Says:

      First Ave. — check; gas tanks — check; but, wrong neighborhood. The photo looks south on 1st Ave. from vicinity of 115th St. Tanks were on south side of 111th St.

      • wildnewyork Says:

        Thank you both for your insight and I think you must be right. However, what do you make of the number on the right side, under the Castor Oil Ad over the embalmer? It looks like 459, and if it’s a building number, that would put this address in the high 20s.

    • T.J. Connick Says:

      Regarding the number on the sign: the highest resolution photo on Library of Congress site shows the number as 489. After fumbling around for a bit trying to “fit” the address to one of the side streets, nothing lined up properly. Consequently, I threw the number out as a street address. Fletcher’s Castoria signs were everywhere, and I’ve never seen one with a mention for where to buy it. I reckon the 489 must have been some control mechanism for the sign painter or “sign space” agent.

      The buildings on the block where you focus match contemporary atlases in that the sequence of buildings, heights, and materials (brick vs. frame) “click” with west side of 1st Ave, north of 114th St. To the right of the squat frame building (Canero Undertaker) is a 3-story brick building with a saloon and its elaborate Ehret’s beer sign. Proprietor name on sign is A. Cirolli. Andrea Cirolli appears on a 1908 “excise” list as liquor license owner at 2229 1st Ave, which lines up perfectly.

  4. Joe R Says:

    A bit more re that first photo. Those gas tanks at 111th Street actually survived until about the early 1970’s. The reference to Little Italy is that this area was one of Manhattan’s three neighborhoods known by that name at that time. The other two were in the Lower East Side and (supposedly) Manhattan Valley. Some remnants of the East Harlem Little Italy could be Rao’s and Patsy’s Pizza. Also, a local church held a festival with the carrying of the Giglio – just like the one in Williamsburg – until recently.

  5. Oldeastsidr Says:

    I was born and raised on the next street over from the second photo. In fact lived on 20th street (bulding would have been to the left of the ones in the photo) for about a year or so as a child until all those buildings in the photo were demolished to make way for JHS 104 and we moved back to our original building on 19th. I gathered a bunch of old photos of the area and posted them at http://www.flickr.com/photos/oldeastsidr/sets/72157604102359272/with/5725836851/ , including the elevated lines, etc. To give credit where due, I obtained the photos from the NY Public Library digital collection.

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    I took down the photo–damn, it was a good one! But I appreciate everyone’s feedback and detective work.

    Oldeastsidr, these are great photos. Thanks for sharing the link.

  7. T.J. Connick Says:

    New York Public Library’s gallery yields several useful shots of the tanks you seek; search for “Avenue B”.

  8. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Amazing old pics. Bookmarked them for later study. Thanks very much.

    • mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

      Great pictures! I was particularly interested on 1st Ave & 13th St 1942 where I grew up. I still wasn’t born, the war was underway and my parents still had to get away from Bolshevik and Nazi goons, which they did, coming to America in 1951. It’s amazing to touch a glimpse of what the area looked like in those days. I wonder if the new images from today summon the same nostalgic longings. But I doubt it very much. Thanks Oldeastsidr, you opened up a closed world to me.

    • Oldeastsidr Says:

      Thanks Mick.
      You are correct — images of today do not have the same nostalgia. Old buildings demolished, and replaced with tall uninteresting structures, dorms, etc. It is sites like this one that keep the history, flavor, and memories alive. It is quite likely that we passed each other on 1st avenue growing up. I will be uploading more photos of the area (17th street, original PS 19 on 14th street, etc). I really appreciate Ephemeral’s ability to keep the old flames burning and show current generations what our parents and grandparents saw, heard, and felt years ago.

  9. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Here’s some pics about the 2nd Ave El

    http://picasaweb.google.com/MercuryWW/NYC2ndAveEl

  10. The “river rats” swimming in the East River « Ephemeral New York Says:

    [...] rocky cliff in the painting—perhaps it was part of the old Gashouse District in the East 20s or Dutch Hill in the East 40s and 50s, which became an industrial area packed with [...]

  11. Anne Bauso Says:

    Oldeastsider:

    I’m interested in PS 19, but can’t figure out where exactly it was. On the block between 1st and A and 13th and 14th, right? Do you know what’s there now?

    Jean

    • oldeastsidr Says:

      PS 19 was on the south side of 14th street between 1st and 2nd avenues just off 1st avenue. There is something like a YMCA there now. I may have an old photo of the school that I found online (I went there for kindergarten and 1st grade) — will try and find it.

  12. james perez Says:

    great seeing those pictures i went to ps40 in the middle 50s lived on first ave. between 20th and 21street i think theres a supper market there now also on the corner of 20th street and first ave. was sams pizza and grocery my brothers worked there

  13. FRED BERRIOS Says:

    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-tWK-i28BxLc/Szo8hBM2XOI/AAAAAAAAFX8/eS9tnXcKFCo/s539/L118.jpg….MYSTERY PHOTO SOLVED .!!… HERE IS PROOF OF TANKS ON North on 1st Ave from 18th St showing the 2nd Ave El 19th St Station…@.OLDEASTSIDR… THE PIC YOU POSTED WAS UP BY MY WAY. THAT STRETCH WAS 1RST AVE AND THOSE TANKERS WERE ON 110TH ST.

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