The rocking-chair riot that riled up New Yorkers

August 11, 2014

OscarspateOscar Spate (right) was a shady British businessman with a crazy plan in spring 1901.

He’d pay the parks commissioner $500 for the right to put 200 green rocking chairs in Central Park and Madison Square Park.

He’d charge 5 cents a seat to park attendees who wanted to sit in his cane-bottomed chairs rather than a stiff park bench. Hired attendants would make sure sitters paid up.

This idea actually got the go-ahead from the parks commissioner. It may have been because Spate claimed that the great parks in Europe had chairs for rent. Or perhaps the commissioner was worried about the homeless who had increasingly begun occupying city parks, scaring away many visitors.

Madisonsquarepostcard1900s

Paying for seating, he may have reasoned, was the only way to clear derelicts from these two parks and bring back residents, according to The Flatiron, by Alice Sparberg Alexiou.

While the placement of these rocking chairs for hire in Central Park didn’t appear to ruffle many feathers, the chairs in Madison Square Park ticked people off.

Madisonsquareparkfountain

Newspapers picked up the story of two-tiered seating, and New Yorkers made a point of purposely sitting in the rocking chairs and refusing to pay attendants, arguing that it was a free country.

When a heat wave struck in July, tempers really flared. “The parks still had free benches, but the privately operated chairs seemed to occupy all the shady areas,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times in 2006.

Madisonsquareparkingfbruno:wikiIn Madison Square Park, “an estimated 1,000 men and boys chased Thomas Tully, a chair attendant, into the Fifth Avenue Hotel with cries of ‘Lynch him!’ after Mr. Tully upended a nonpayer from his rocker and slapped a boy who was heckling him.”

Two days later, Spate’s permit was revoked. Ten thousand people crowded into Madison Square Park to celebrate the decision—and sit in his chairs.

Ever the businessman, Spate eventually sold them to Wanamaker’s and billed them as historic artifacts!

The above photo shows the modern Madison Square Park, with egalitarian benches [ingfbruno/wiki]

Defunct city addresses on vintage real estate ads

August 11, 2014

Lots for sale on 83rd and 84th Streets at Avenues A and B? That’s not a misprint—York Avenue was Avenue A until the 1920s (and some Avenue A signage still exists, like this school address).

As for Avenue B, based on the faint map on the 1854 ad, it’s the last avenue before the East River.

AvenuesA&Blotsforsale1854

Manhattan Square? This existed once too at today’s Central Park West in upper 70s and 80s.

In 1852, when this auction was scheduled to be held, it seems to have been part of the sparsely populated village of Harsenville.

Manhattansquarelotsuaction1852

What a difference 20 years makes. In the 1870s, it was secured for the site for the American Museum of Natural History, which occupies the four-block square today.

Anthony J. Bleecker, a member of the family Bleecker Street was named after, must have been the preeminent auctioneer at the time. I wonder what he sold these lots for?

[Vintage ads: Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal]

Going for a swim at Madison Square Garden

August 9, 2014

Imagine if every summer, the interior of the current Madison Square Garden was transformed into an enormous swimming pool, with diving platforms, seats for spectators, and a 25-foot waterfall.

Madison Square Garden as a Swimming Pool

Pretty cool, right? A pool like this actually did exist during the summer of 1921—host to swim competitions and diving shows, and open to the general public too.

The pool was the idea of boxing promoter Tex Rickard, who leased the Garden, then on Madison Avenue and 26th Street, for a series of Friday night fights.

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“In addition to a full slate of boxing matches, Rickard’s plan for the Garden included remodeling the structure, adding seating capacity (bringing it to 13,000 seats), and turning the giant amphitheater into the world’s largest indoor swimming pool during the summer months,” states Tex Rickard: Boxing’s Greatest Promoter.

MadisonsquaregardenIIUnfortunately the pool didn’t last much longer. Rickard gave up his promoter’s license after being accused of improper behavior with a couple of teenage girls.

That didn’t end his career though. He helped finance the creation of a new Madison Square Garden on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, which opened in 1925.

The circa-1890 arena, designed by Stanford White, with the new pool (above) was demolished.

A 1930s painter’s gentle, downtrodden New York

August 9, 2014

New York artist Raphael Soyer’s style of painting was seriously out of fashion during his lifetime.

Raphaelsoyernocturne

["Nocturne," from 1935, inspired by Soyer's "Bowery Nocturne" lithograph done two years earlier]

Born in Russia in 1899, his family arrived in the Bronx in 1912.

Soyer soon went to work, holding menial jobs. But throughout the teens, he also studied art, taking free classes at Cooper Union and the Art Students League.

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["Employment Agency," from the 1930s]

Rather than the abstract style that was popular in the 1930s and beyond, his work was realistic—he cast his eye on the lonely and downtrodden working-class New Yorkers he saw in bars, employment agencies, and on city streets.

Raphaelsoyerofficegirls1936

["Office Girls," from 1936]

With his twin brother Moses and another sibling, Isaac, he was a leading Social Realist.

Soyer sketched and painted compassionate images of lonely and dispossessed Bowery bums, shopgirls, and secretaries going about their lives and appearing ordinary, unheroic, yet deeply human.

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["Sixth Avenue," 1930-1935]

His 1987 New York Times obituary contains an exchange Soyer once had with Jackson Pollack, which Soyer recounted in an article in Art & Antiques magazine:

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["Cafe Scene," 1940]

“Without greeting me he rudely said, ‘Soyer, why do you paint like you do?’ ” Mr. Soyer wrote. ”He pointed to an airplane. ‘There are planes flying, and you still paint realistically. You don’t belong to our time.’ ”

”I could have said to Jackson, ‘If I don’t like the art of our time, must I belong to our time?’ But I did not say that. I merely said that I paint the way I like to.”

The bicycle “scorchers” menacing the 1890s city

August 9, 2014

Cyclists racing down city streets at top speed, darting around pedestrians on sidewalks and roadways? It’s not just a contemporary New York thing.

ScorchersongbookThe Gilded Age city dealt with reckless bike riders first.

Called “scorchers” for their speed, they gave the very trendy new sport of cycling a bad name and were much-discussed in newspaper articles of the day.

“A new menace appeared in the streets: the ‘scorcher’ or bicycle speed fiend, ‘that idiot with head sunk between bent handle bars,’ body thrown forward and pedaling at top speed,” wrote Peter Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story.

The Upper West Side was especially popular with riders. From Columbus Circle to 72nd to Riverside Drive and Grant’s Tomb, the broad avenues were packed with riders—and some terrified residents.

“The Boulevard, in the vicinity of 72nd Street, is becoming a place very difficult to cross, and at times dangerous to limb and possibly to life,” one New York Times letter writer complained in November 1895.

Scorchersquad

“The number of ‘hoodlums’ scorching along there with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing; and the matter certainly needs regulating by the officers of the law.”

One month later, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt approved the formation of a “scorcher squad,” four men who were tasked with catching and ticketing these speeding cyclists.

Cyclistsfifthave124thst1897

Considered a success, the scorcher squad eventually expanded to include 100 officers (middle photo).

But as the cycling fad eased and the automobile took over city streets, the squad’s days were numbered. Considering that we’re in a new bicycle era and not all riders follow traffic rules, maybe it’s time for a second incarnation of the scorcher squad?

[Top image: via tubulocity.com; third photo, cyclists rounding the corner at Fifth Avenue and 124th Street in 1897 : MCNY]

Browsing the Flat Iron Restaurant menu, 1906

August 4, 2014

Since it opened in 1902, much has been written about the Flatiron Building, the triangular beauty that helped usher in New York’s 20th century skyscraper era.

Flatironrestaurantmenucover1906nypl

The Flat Iron Restaurant and Cafe, though, seems to be lost to the ages.

By 1906, Madison Square was no longer a desirable residential neighborhood for the city’s elite, as it had been earlier in the Gilded Age.

It was now a bustling commercial district, and that seems to be reflected in the menu offerings, which include an incredible selection of not-expensive shellfish, meats, and sandwiches.

Flatironmenu

I wonder if any contemporary city restaurant will bring back things like clear green turtle in a cup, eels in jelly, and breaded calf brains?

The rest of the four-page Flat Iron menu can be found here.

[Images: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The short life of a lower Broadway footbridge

August 4, 2014

Think Broadway gridlock is bad now? Here’s what it was like in the 1860s—when the city’s busiest thoroughfare had two-way traffic, no marked lanes, and no lights.

“Carriages, wagons, carts, omnibuses, and trucks are packed together in the most helpless confusion,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

Geninbridgecolor“It is always a difficult matter for a pedestrian to cross the lower part of Broadway in the busy season. Ladies, old persons, and children find it impossible to do so without the aid of police, whose duty it is to make a passage for them through the crowd of vehicles.”

To make this stretch of safer for pedestrians—and of course, encourage more foot traffic to his shop—a well-known hatter named John Genin, whose store sat on the southwest corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, pressured the city to build a crossing steps from his door.

He’d dreamed of a footbridge here since the 1850s and drew up designs too, as this illustration above shows.

In 1866, the fanciful Loew Bridge, named after city politico Charles Loew, opened. New Yorkers used the lacy, elegant bridge to get across town as well as take in the view.

Loewbridgecloseup1867

Genin must have been happy. But anotherr hatter on the northeast corner of Broadway and Fulton, Charles Knox, was not. Shadows cast by the bridge put Knox’s shop in darkness, and he was convinced he was losing sales.

He and a group of hatters from his side of Broadway sued the city, forcing city officials to tear it down. Loew Bridge only lasted a year, undone by a fierce business rivalry in an industry that barely exists in the New York of today.

A 19th century New Yorker invents toilet paper

August 4, 2014

Gayettyspaperad1907druggistMany things owe their existence to the inventors and developers of New York City, like Christmas tree lights, Oreos, chop suey, and ambulances.

Toilet paper? That’s a city creation too.

Before the invention of the modern water closet, people used newspaper, corncobs, even the Sears catalog to take care of business.

As advances in plumbing and sanitation brought indoor privies to an increasing number of homes in the 19th century, a businessman began marketing the first commercially produced toilet paper.

Gayettystoiletpaperad1857top

Joseph C. Gayetty sold “flat sheets of ”Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water closet,’ for the fairly expensive price of 1,000 sheets for a dollar out of his shop at 41 Ann Street in Lower Manhattan,'” states this New York Times article from 2004.

As his ads reveal, Gayetty positioned his paper as a curative.

Gayettystoiletpaperadlocad“All persons anxious to be spared from Piles, of cured of that dreaded disease, should use Gayetty’s Medicated Paper,” says an 1859 ad from the New-York Daily Tribune.

“Young and old should use it systematically. The sedentary should never be without it. All other paper is poisonous, be it white or printed.”

Apparently, Gayetty’s paper wasn’t the biggest hit. The average consumer in the 1850s may not have wanted to pay for something that used to be free.

Or maybe it was the fact that his flat sheets weren’t so easy to use. According to the Times article, it wasn’t until “the brothers E. Irvin and Clarence Scott produced a roll of perforated paper in Philadelphia and founded the Scott Paper Company in 1879 did the idea catch on.”

Magic and motion of 1920s Broadway at night

July 28, 2014

It’s an enchanting night in Times Square in this colorful postcard, and the Paramount Building, with the Paramount Theatre at street level, takes center stage.

Opened in 1926 in an era of grand movie palaces, the Paramount captured the city’s attention and imagination.

Paramounttheaterpostcard

The lobby “was modeled after the Paris Opera House with white marble columns, balustrades, and an opening arms grand staircase,” explains Cinema Treasures. “The ceilings were fresco and gilt. . . . in the main lobby there was an enormous crystal chandelier.”

During World War II, the globe and clock were painted black, so potential enemy invaders couldn’t see.

The Paramount Theatre bit the dust in 1964, and the building is now used for offices. Here’s a much more sedate daytime version of the same stretch of Broadway just a decade earlier.

A century of fire hydrants cooling New York kids

July 28, 2014

I’m not sure exactly when the first New York City fire hydrant was wrenched open so neighborhood kids could play in the cool rush of water on a hot summer day.

Citykidslotharstelterhotday1952

But this very New York way to chase away the heat may have caught on and been officially sanctioned in the late teens, when John Hylan was mayor (below, in 1921, in a NYC Municipal Archives photo).

“The mayor is particularly good to children,” the Queens borough president was quoted saying in a New York Times article from 1925.

Mayorhyland192140s8thave

“It was his great heart that ordered the streets closed so that children could have a safe place in which to play, and it was his heart that ordered the policemen and firemen in summer to give the children baths from fire hydrants so that they might keep cool.”

Bowery1919nypl

Since then, the spray—or trickle, as this NYPL photo of some boys on the Bowery in 1919 shows—from fire hydrants has cooled off millions of little New Yorkers, legally or otherwise.

Mulberrystreet1936

This AP photo was taken on Mulberry Street in 1936, the year of an exceptionally brutal heat wave.

Summerheat1920lex85thcrotonsurf

Turning Mulberry Street into a river looks a lot more exciting than hanging out under a giant shower at Lexington and 85th Street of “Croton surf,” as the caption to this 1920 NYC Municipal Archives photo calls it.

Brucedavidsoneast100thst1966

New York in the 1960s could be pretty gritty, but at least the hydrants worked. Photographer Bruce Davidson captured this photo in 1966 of a boy on 100th Street.

A 10-day heat wave gripped the city in 1953, and Life magazine photographers captured some wonderful images of kids opening a hydrant (and then a police officer putting a stop to the fun).

[Top photo: "Hot Day," Lothar Stelter, 1952 ©Lothar Stelter]


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