Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1940s’

Buying produce from Bleecker Street pushcarts

June 30, 2014

Thanks to the bell tower of the Our Lady of Pompeii Church that’s still on the corner at Carmine Street, this soft, muted depiction of vegetable sellers and neighborhood shoppers at Bleecker Street is instantly recognizable.

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It’s probably the early 1940s. Artist Bela de Tirefort, an Austrian native, painted many scenes of daily life around Washington Square Park and the Flatiron Building from the 1930s through the 1950s.

It’s not clear if this is also Bleecker Street, but the resemblance is strong.

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“In the 1940s, pushcarts made this street all but impassable,” states the Project for Public Spaces.

“Cart operators were forced by law to move indoors, but the street retained its association with food, and today’s Bleecker Street still contains some of the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, and delicacies to be found in the city.”

Thirty or so years earlier in 1915, Ashcan painter George Luks also took a stab at depicting the shops and crowds in this nighttime view of the opposite corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.

The WWII servicemen’s hangout at Grand Central

February 20, 2014

ServicemensloungeWartime New York City was a very hospitable place for the thousands of enlisted men (and women) going off to fight in World War II or returning home on furlough.

Take Grand Central Terminal, for example. During the war, the East Balcony was turned into a “Service Men’s Lounge” by the New York Central and New Haven Railroads.

According to the back of this postcard, the lounge was “equipped with ping pong and pool tables, library, piano, easy chairs, lunch counter, etc.”

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The lounge was “a meeting room for men of all nations,” wrote John Belle in Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. “On any given day, it was not unusual to see a kilted Highlander at the coffee bar learning from an American soldier how to dunk a doughnut.”

In 1943, Life ran this warning about the lounge to travelers: “Busiest on weekends when thousands travel on furlough. To give them more room on weekend trains, plan trips you must make for mid-week.”

Cocktail time at an old 1940s Russian restaurant

February 10, 2014

RussianrestaurantpostcardEver heard of Tarwid’s Russian Bear restaurant? Me neither, but based on their postcard advertisements, I’m intrigued.

“America’s oldest Russian restaurant” boasted that it was “nationally famed the excellence of its Russian cuisine and beauty of true Russian atmosphere.”

Tarwid’s once had a prime location on Lexington Avenue in Midtown. Must have been the site of some truly epic working lunches.

According to real-estate records, the place relocated to Lexington and 57th Street in 1948, and then moved down Lexington to 39th Street in 1952.

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After that, the trail goes cold. Today, the address leads to a 1960s-style apartment building housing several small stores.

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I love the ELdorado phone exchange and the old-school ZIP code, only the last two digits necessary for mail to be delivered within New York City.

A Harlem park named after two famous hoarders

October 7, 2013

It’s not as if their Harlem neighbors were close to Homer and Langley Collyer.

The two brothers seemed to want nothing to do with local residents—and the feeling appeared to be mutual.

Collyerbrothersstreet

Born in the 1880s, Homer and Langley resided in a once-elegant brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street since 1909 with their well-off parents, a physician and a former opera singer.

Homercollyer1939The brothers were always eccentric. But once their parents passed away in the 1920s, they retreated from the world and lived behind locked doors, “hiding from the eyes of curious neighbors,” The New York Times stated.

The 1920s passed, then the 1930s.

Neighbors never saw them, so rumors spread: they were rich, they owned half the city waterfront, they had 20 grand pianos in their basement. No one had been inside, so no one knew the truth.

[Homer, above in 1939, makes a rare appearance on his stoop to fight eviction]

Langleycollyer1946Their phone and gas had been shut off. The brothers had money, they preferred to live in seclusion among thousands of hoarded items: bundles of newspaper, old pianos, car parts, and mountains of other worthless possessions.

[Langley, right, forced to leave the house in 1946 for a court date to battle a condemnation order.]

They met their end in 1947. Langely appeared to die first, felled by one of the booby traps he’d created amid piles of trash to block thieves.

But police found Homer’s body first. The medical examiner determined that he died of malnutrition. Blind and paralyzed, he starved to death days after Langley was caught in his own trap.

Over the next weeks, about 130 tons of garbage were removed from the rotting house, which was bulldozed.

Collyerbrothersparkwiki

Considering how Homer and Langley had nothing to do with their neighbors, it’s curious that the pocket park occupying the site of their old brownstone bears the name Collyer Brothers Park.

I wonder what they would think of the honor?

[Photos: New York Daily News, Wikipedia]

“Unconscious grace” on a rooftop in Chelsea

August 19, 2013

Lines of laundry, a pigeon coop, a sunbather? It’s a very different neighborhood today than the one depicted in John Sloan’s A Roof in Chelsea, New York, painted in the 1940s.

“This is one of Sloan’s last renderings of the domestic city life he so loved to observe,” states this writeup from the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. “He worked on the painting at intervals beginning in 1941.”

Johnsloanchelsearoof

“Sloan was particularly drawn to the subject of women hanging out laundry on rooftops. He described his persistent attraction to this theme as ‘an urge to record my strong emotional response to the city woman, any woman running up colors of a fresh clean wash. Sun, wind, . . . blowing hair, unconscious grace give me great joy.’”

Here’s another Sloan painting of women, hair, and laundry—this time on a Cornelia Street roof.

“Full of light, movement, and brilliant color, this ebullient image stands in sharp contrast to some of Sloan’s more introspective works and the strident political illustrations he created earlier in his career.”

Where “discriminating” New Yorkers used to dine

January 18, 2013

Would today’s New York foodies approve of the Skipper restaurants, a mid-century mini-chain of dining establishments centered in midtown?

Well, the food is “well-cooked” and “balanced” (nutritious and no trans fats?), and they do their own baking, which might count as local fare.

Theskipperrestaurants

The menu items probably wouldn’t go over well. A review in the 1949 restaurant guide Knife and Fork in New York notes the “deviled crab, southern fried chicken,” and “roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.”

Theskipperpostcardback

And the decor wouldn’t attract a trendy crowd. It’s described in the book as “tearoomy” in the “colonial mood, with colorful wallpapers.” The Skipper sounds like an inexpensive place to grab a bite if you’re hungry and not especially picky.

Interestingly, the chain has a “Men’s Grill” on 44th Street. I know the city had male-only bars well into the 1960s (McSorley’s wasn’t open to women until 1970!). But single-sex public restaurants in the 1940s?

Ending it all at a popular midtown tourist hotel

December 10, 2012

Today, it’s the luxe Michelangelo Hotel. But from 1926 through the 1980s, it was the 2,000-room Hotel Taft, “one of the premier tourist hotels in the city,” a New York Times article recalls.

Over the years, that adds up to a lot of out-of-towners booking rooms to celebrate events and catch Broadway shows. But like any multistory hotel, the Taft has also had its share of suicides.

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“Woman Phones News of Her Own Suicide,” a headline from June 1933 reads. After calling the city desk at the Daily Mirror, 35-year-old phone operator Miss Catherine Mary Dietz told a staffer that she’d just taken “36 tablets of poison” and was about to leap to her death from her room on the 18th floor, which she did, a moment later.

HoteltaftadThat wasn’t the only suicide at the Taft in 1933. In February, 40-year-old artist Charles Schomburg jumped from his 14th-floor room, leaving a note that read “financial reverses have brought me to this point of despondency.” His body hit the roof of the adjoining Roxy Theater.

Seven years later, a Brooklyn surgeon registered under a fake name and overdosed. “The body was found in bed clad in pajamas with the covers pulled it,” the Times wrote.

“In a wastepaper basket near by was a brown bottle containing a few crystals.” He left his home phone number on a pad on the night table.

A TV and theater actor also ended his life at the Taft. Philip Loeb (he played the father on The Goldbergs) OD’d there on sleeping pills in 1955. His apparent motive: The show dropped him because he’d been blacklisted as a communist.

The 1940s tourist attractions of the “Penn Zone”

October 29, 2012

If you think the streets around Penn Station are crowded with out-of-towners now, imagine how jammed they must have been in the 1940s.

Back then, this was the “Penn Zone,” according to this vintage postcard, a stretch of Midtown brimming with massive hotels and must-see sites for tourists.


Some are still here, of course, such as the Empire State Building and Macy’s (number 8). But the original Penn Station (2) bit the dust in 1963, and the Hotel McAlpin (4) is now called Herald Towers and is a rental apartment building.

Gimbel’s (10) and Sak’s 34th Street (9) are ghosts. The Hotel New Yorker (6) keeps packing them in, while the Hotel Martinique (3) endured a tortured history as a 1980s welfare hotel before reopening as a Radisson.

Solving a murder at Harlem’s Green Parrot Grill

November 17, 2011

It may be the only time a tropical bird helped crack a New York cold case.

On July 12, 1942, Max Geller, owner of the Green Parrot Bar and Grill on Third Avenue and 100th Street, was shot to death in his small restaurant by a lone gunman.

“None of the restaurant’s patrons could (or would) identify the killer, and the police had no clues,” wrote Patrick M. Wall in The Annals of Manhattan Crime, published in New York magazine in 1988.

Months passed, and finally, a breakthrough. Geller had kept a real parrot in his restaurant, and a detective learned that the bird was trained to call regular customers by name.

Witnesses had said that the bird screeched “robber robber robber” as his owner was shot. The detective, however, “had a hunch that the parrot had actually repeated “Robert Robert Robert.”

“Suspicion focused on a man named Robert Butler, 28, who had left Manhattan shortly after the shooting,” wrote Wall.

Cops located Butler, a former taxi driver, in Maryland, where he confessed to shooting Geller in a drunken rage because Geller refused to serve him.

Brought back to New York in November 1943, Butler was sentenced to 15 years.

[This is not the murder-solving parrot, but he probably looked similar. . . .]

A street photographer’s working-class New York

July 20, 2011

“Whether he trained his camera on exuberant summer scenes on the beaches of Coney Island or the intimate corners of Mulberry Street during the San Gennaro festival, as here, Grossman was one of the greatest chroniclers of working-class life in New York during the late 1930s and 1940s,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Sid Grossman.

[Left: "Mulberry Street, 1948"]

While still a City College student, Grossman launched his career as a freelance photojournalist; he and fellow lensman Sol Libsohn cofounded the Photo League in 1936, teaching the craft as well as shooting street scenes in Chelsea and Harlem.

[Below: "Harlem Scene: 133rd Street Between Lenox and Fifth Avenues," 1930s]

Grossman’s photos captured regular New Yorkers going about life in the 1930s, but by the 1940s, his photos often had a surreal quality, with subjects out of frame and staring back at the camera.

This made the viewer “an engaged participant in the scene rather than an aloof flâneur, rendering the experience of the picture not just an aesthetic dalliance, but a social activity as well.”

[above: "Two Young Women before a Pastry Shop at Night," 1948]

Grossman might have continued shooting New York—but photos of labor union unrest he took in the 1930s led to an FBI investigation, which deemed the Photo League a Communist front.

The league was blacklisted; Grossman died in 1955.


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