Archive for October, 2011

A windy, slushy Union Square in 1892

October 31, 2011

Frederick Childe Hassam’s “Winter in Union Square,” painted from 17th Street near Hassam’s studio, kind of resembles what Union Square looked like on Saturday.

Hassam frequently depicted New York streets in severe weather, like this one of pedestrians battling rain in Union Square.

The British soil that built part of the FDR Drive

October 31, 2011

Next time you’re stuck in traffic between 23rd Street and 34th Street on the FDR Drive, take a moment to consider where the land beneath you came from.

It wasn’t fill from digging the subways or skyscrapers—it was actually transported here all the way from England in the 1940s.

“During World War II, the Luftwaffe savagely bombed the city of Bristol, England, a major port for American supply ships,” wrote Michael Pollack in his FYI column in The New York Times in June 2009.

“After the supplies were unloaded, the American ships had no British goods to replace them on the return trip, and needed ballast for stability. So they loaded up rubble from Bristol’s bombed-out buildings.”

“Back in New York, the ships dumped the ballast from 23rd to 34th Street as landfill for what would become the East River Drive, now Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.”

Though you won’t find it on any city road maps, the slight curve of the East River between these blocks is known as Bristol Basin (above).

The elegant hotel that helped make Times Square

October 31, 2011

Before 1904, the year the Hotel Astor opened its doors on Broadway and 44th Street, Times Square hasn’t been invented yet; this was still Longacre Square, the center of the carriage trade.

The theater district was concentrated many blocks south. And electric lights had yet to give the area its signature glow.

Change was in the air. Within the decade, the newly renamed Times Square was on its way to becoming New York’s premier entertainment district.

And the Beaux-Arts Hotel Astor—with its 11 floors and several ballrooms—quickly earned a rep as the most fashionable place to go for dinner, drinks, dancing, or to catch a rooftop breeze in the summer before air conditioning came along.

But tastes change. The Astor was sold to Sheraton in the 1950s; a fire ripped through its grand ballroom (right, in 1910) in 1964.

On the site now is a 54-story office tower called One Astor Plaza—the Astor name is its only link to the glitz and glamour of pre-World War II Times Square.

How New Yorkers commuted to work in 1830

October 27, 2011

Meet the omnibus. Introduced to New York around 1830 and regarded as the city’s first mode of mass transportation, this 12- to 15-seat oversize stagecoach regularly ran up and down Broadway between posh Bond Street and the Battery.

This rickety contraption set the standard for the way we ride buses today, according to about.com:

“People who wanted to get on would wave their hand in the air. The driver sat on a bench on top of the omnibus at the front, like a stagecoach driver.”

“When people who were riding inside wanted to get off the omnibus, they pulled on a little leather strap. The leather strap was connected to the ankle of the person who was driving the omnibus.”

Next on the mass transit horizon was the horse-drawn streetcar, debuting in in 1832 on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan.

These vehicles “rode along embedded iron or steel tracks, [and] were designed to carry more people and offer a smoother ride than omnibuses,” states the Transit Museum website.

Omnibuses and horse-drawn streetcars were eventually edged out by elevated steam trains, electric trolley cars, trolley buses, and subways when it came to getting around the city.

The last horse-drawn streetcar line, the Bleecker Street & Fulton Ferry Line, pulled into the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker (above) its final time in 1917.

More cross streets carved into tenement corners

October 27, 2011

Before you could Google-map your location on your smart phone, and even before every corner of the city had accurate signs, these chiseled street names came in pretty handy, letting you know where you were.

Mostly you see them in tenement-heavy neighborhoods like the East Village, East Harlem, and the Lower East Side.

Brownstone and tenement Brooklyn have plenty too, like this faded old carving at Underhill Avenue and Bergen Street in Prospect Heights.

Not all cross street carvings are in neighborhoods once poor or working-class. One of the loveliest of all is at University Place and “Twelfth Street East,” done up Beaux-Arts style.

The Lincoln assassination victim from New York

October 27, 2011

It’s hard not to notice the imposing bronze statue of a cross-legged, Lincoln-like man looming over the southwest corner of Madison Square Park on 23rd Street.

That man is William H. Seward, 19th century abolitionist governor and senator from New York State who served as secretary of state under President Lincoln.

Seward never lived in the city. But his name lives on here (think Seward Park and Seward Avenue in the Bronx) because he was recognized as a great statesman . . . and maybe also thanks to his miraculous luck surviving the Lincoln assassination conspiracy in 1865.

On the night of April 14, as John Wilkes Booth aimed a gun at President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, Booth conspirator Lewis Powell conned his way into Seward’s D.C. home, repeatedly stabbing him (below).

Incredibly, Seward didn’t succumb to his wounds; supposedly a splint on his jaw protected his jugular vein.

He recovered and stayed on as secretary of state until 1869, then died in 1872.

Oh, and don’t believe the myth that the Madison Square statue is merely Seward’s head attached to a preexisting mold of Lincoln’s body. The New York Parks Department assures us that it is not.

Dean Street: once “the worst block in Brooklyn”

October 24, 2011

Today, Dean Street between Carlton and Sixth Avenues appears to be a pretty decent stretch of Prospect Heights, mostly lined with restored row houses and brownstones.

Could it really have been so horrible in February 1947, when a priest charged that it was “probably the worst block in Brooklyn” in terms of its concentration of “juvenile delinquents”?

The New York Times articles chronicling the charge don’t provide a lot of details, mainly noting that police say they’ve “tried to interest the 350 children and youths living on the block in a wide variety of sports programs” to no avail.

Apparently not all the residents of the block thought the kids were so bad. According to the Times, “some [residents] believed it was no better and no worse than other slum streets.”

That “slum street” has some awfully pricey real estate, even with Atlantic Yards going up at the other end.

The potter’s fields that became city parks

October 24, 2011

Next time you find yourself lounging in a Manhattan park, consider the thousands of residents who may have occupied the site before you—when it was a cemetery.

Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, and Bryant Park are among the parks that started out as potter’s fields.

Here the city laid to rest its paupers, prisoners, unclaimed and diseased until the mid-19th century.

Madison Square Park was the first, in 1794. When it was full in 1797, potter’s field was moved to Washington Square, to a parcel  “. . . bounded on the road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich,” according to It Happened in Washington Square by Emily Kies Folpe.

Estimates vary, but up to 100,000 New Yorkers may have been buried there—with the tombstone of a possible Yellow Fever victim popping up in 2009.

“After the yellow fever epidemic of 1823, with Greenwich booming just to the west, and Bond Street burgeoning just to the east, the city barred further burials and routed new corpses north to what is today Bryant Park,” states New York City historian and author Mike Wallace in a 2007 New York Times interview.

When that potter’s field was chosen as the site of the Croton Reservoir in the 1840s, “the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred in 1857 to Ward’s Island, and then, finally, to Hart Island, acquired by the city in 1868, with 45 acres of the 100 acre island being set aside as a potter’s field that opened the following year,” says Wallace.

To this day, Hart Island, off the Bronx, remains the city’s potter’s field—and the former burial grounds underwent pretty makeovers into lovely parks.

[Washington Square Park and Bryant Park photos from the 1930s, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

Vintage signs on old-school luncheonettes

October 24, 2011

Spotting one of these falling-apart signs is like entering a time warp. Few are left, and the ones that remain likely won’t be around much longer.

Park Luncheonette, at 334 Driggs Avenue on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border,  was a real soda fountain serving diner grub since the 1930s.

After a cameo in The Departed and then an upgrade in the mid-2000s, it closed a few years ago.

I’m not sure how long the Cup & Saucer has been satisfying greasy spoon cravings at the corner of Canal and Eldridge Streets.

But the to-the-point sign has got to be from the 1970s at least.

Tom’s Restaurant, at Sterling Place and Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, has been going strong since the 1936.

It’s not the Tom’s from the Suzanne Vega song—that’s the other old-school Tom’s, on Broadway and 112th Street.

How 19th century New Yorkers spent Sundays

October 21, 2011

During the workweek, the city was fast-paced and cutthroat, just as it is today.

But in the 19th century, that workweek generally ran from Monday through Saturday.

Which made Sunday the city’s day of leisure, when the mood of New York drastically changed, explains James McCabe’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life, from 1873.

“On Sunday morning New York puts on its holiday dress. The stores are closed, the streets have a deserted aspect, for the crowds of vehicles, animals, and human beings that fill them on other days are absent.”

Around 10 o’clock, New Yorkers went to church—preferably on Fifth Avenue, so well-to-do residents could promenade on the city’s most fashionable street afterward.

“The toilettes of the ladies show well here, and it is a pleasant place to meet one’s acquaintances,” says McCabe.

Dinner was served at 1 p.m.; servants had the rest of the day off. “After dinner, your New Yorker, male or female, thinks of enjoyment.” That meant more promenading, a drive in Central Park, or if you were working class, a picnic in the park or skating session on one of the frozen lakes.

Concerts were well-attended; saloons had plenty of business too. By sunset, “the Bowery brightens up wonderfully, and after nightfall the street is ablaze with a thousand gaslights. . . . Bowery beer-gardens do a good business.”

And with Sunday over, it was time to start the workweek . . . and do it all over again.

[Top two illustrations: NYPL digital collection]


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