Posts Tagged ‘New York tenement’

Left behind street signage of an older Manhattan

August 5, 2013

Readers of this site know that street signs are a favorite here, especially the old-fashioned kind carved into a building’s facade—like the one below at Sixth Avenue and 24th Street.

Doesn’t the lettering transport you to an entirely different New York? In fancy type it tells us that we’re at The Corner.

Thecornersign

“Built in 1879, it was called ‘The Corner’ and was the beer hall annex to Koster & Bial’s Vaudeville Theater/Concert Hall, where Victor Herbert conducted his 40-piece orchestra,” explains a 1995 New York Times piece.

102ndstreetsign

At the time, this was the center of an area called the Tenderloin (also referred to illustriously as Satan’s Circus), the late 19th century sin district filled with dance halls, gambling dens, and brothels.

This corner sign for 102nd Street and Broadway is also wonderfully decorative. I’m not sure when it went up, but it looks very turn of the 20th century. (Thanks to Ephemeral reader IA for pointing it out.)

Doyersstreetsign

This one on Doyers Street in Chinatown might be the oldest actual Manhattan street sign—meaning a sign affixed to a pole or side of a building, rather than a plaque or engraving.

Grimy and hard to read after decades stuck to this building, it harkens back to a more down and dirty Chinatown of tong wars, when Doyers Street went by the infamous nickname the Bloody Angle.

Ghostly outlines of the city’s vanished buildings

July 29, 2013

Once, they served as homes, shops, and offices for an older New York.

Now, they no longer exist—the only trace left behind are faded impressions where each building once stood. These haunting outlines will also vanish soon, covered up by the new office tower or co-op and erased from the city’s memory forever.

Ghostoutlinesixthand17thst

I often pass by the long-empty parking lot at Sixth Avenue and 17th Street and wonder about the low-rise tenement that is no longer there. I always liked what looks like a little chimney outline in the center.

Ghostlyoutlines56thand1st

At Lexington Avenue and 56th Street is an odd-shaped building—another tenement?

Makes sense; this was once a neighborhood of belching factories on or near the East River and the houses of people who worked in them.

Ghostlyoutlinechinatown

Check out the impression of a jagged roof left on a taller building on Lafayette Street. I would have loved to have seen it in person.

Ghostlyoutlines30thst

Chimney outlines are always enchanting. Who occupied this gone-forever little house on West 30th Street, and what were their stories?

Some mysterious names carved into tenements

January 7, 2013

I love that even the lowliest tenements typically have names. A developer would complete his building, then carve a word or two above the entrance—such as the name of the street or a popular politician—to distinguish it from the pack.

Tenementclaremount

Some names are obvious, others more mysterious, such as this one in the East Village. The Claremount is a handsome building on East 12th Street. But why Claremount?

Claremont Avenue, named for an old New York family, is a short street in Morningside Heights, but I’m not aware of any connection between the Claremonts and the East Village. Perhaps it just sounded posh.

Tenementnonpareil

The Nonpareil is a tenement on Edgecombe Avenue on the Harlem/Washington Heights border. It translates into “having no match” or “unrivaled.” Quite a boastful name for such a humble building!

Tenementminneola2

Minneola is reportedly a Native American word for “a pleasant place.” Hence this building, in the South Village. Or is it a misspelled homage to Mineola, Long Island?

Tenementhelencourt

Helen Court sounds like a soft, peaceful tenement. It’s in Harlem near 125th Street. Helen was a popular name about a century ago. Who was Helen—the developer’s wife or daughter?

The “enigmatic emptiness” of a city sidewalk

October 25, 2012

“Edward Hopper’s haunting realist canvas evokes an enigmatic emptiness that has become the artist’s trademark,” states the caption accompanying this 1924 painting on the website of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

“His sparsely populated New York cityscapes, bleak New England views, and lonely interiors share the same stark simplicity.”

“In New York Pavements Hopper used bold cropping, an elevated point of view, strong diagonal lines, and a simple, bleached palette to achieve an odd and detached effect.”

“From a bird’s-eye perspective, the only hint of narrative is the figure emerging from the lower left.”

It’s such an ordinary city scene yet so disquieting. Who is the nun with the baby carriage, and what neighborhood is this?

A posh Nolita alley’s rough and tumble past

April 19, 2012

Centre Market Place is a charming New York alley that’s easy to miss.

It’s just a one-block sliver of pavement behind the old Police Headquarters (now a luxurious residence) on Centre Street.

The alley is all very contemporary Nolita, with brightly painted townhouses topping expensive boutiques. But for the past 150 years or so, it was just another crowded strip in a poor stretch of the East Side.

It’s a block now mostly scrubbed clean of its rougher edges, which included a public bath at number nine on the Broome Street end.

Called the People’s Bath House and built by a private charity in the 1890s, it used to be crowded with mostly Italian immigrant tenement dwellers.

The site where it once stood is now an empty lot.

Centre Market Place also had an illustrious resident in the 1930s: crime photographer Weegee.

His one-room apartment, perfectly located near all the police action, was at number five.

A gritty industry thrived on the street as well: guns. Several gun shops were located there through much of the 20th century, fueled by the NYPD.

The gun dealers are gone, but the sign (below) still exists at number seven for Sile, a gun distributor with a branch in Brescia, Italy.


The busty ladies on a Henry Street tenement

February 27, 2012

There is something rather unsettling about these two women, fronting a tenement entrance on a stretch of Chinatown’s Henry Street.

It’s not the fact that they are thrusting their chests out—it’s the facial expressions, like demented dolls. They and the bearded man in the middle have been creeping out residents and passersby for at least a hundred years.

East Side cross streets carved into corners

February 2, 2012

Wherever you’ll find old-school brick and brownstone buildings, you’ll also be able to spot some addresses carved into the facade.

I love the fancy numerals on this brick 76th Street tenement. That’s definitely not Helvetica.

Henington Hall, off Avenue B, was a meeting place for political groups and speakers in the first half of the 20th century and today functions as an art studio.

Interestingly, it’s where David Greenglass—who helped send his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair—got married in 1942.

Used to be an elementary school at this corner on 51st Street and First Avenue. At some point it went up for sale and was bought by a developer—who kept the 1892 facade and built a high-rise inside it.

The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

January 30, 2012

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”

A fresh blanket of snow on a New York block

January 22, 2012

Robert Henri painted “Snow in New York” in 1902. Writes the National Gallery of Art, where the painting hangs:

“Henri’s Snow in New York depicts ordinary brownstone apartments hemmed in by city blocks of humdrum office buildings. This calm, stable geometry adds to the hush of new-fallen snow.

“The exact date inscribed—March 5, 1902—implies the canvas was painted in a single session. Its on-the-spot observations and spontaneous sketchiness reveal gray slush in the traffic ruts and yellow mud on the horsecart’s wheels.”

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.


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