Soft drinks and socializing for GIs in Times Square

May 30, 2016

New York was a welcoming place for sailors and soldiers about the ship out or on furlough during World War II.

Mens Service Center

Besides discounts and freebies when it came to transportation and entertainment, GIs also had special hangouts where they could relax, get a drink, talk, or shoot pool.

One of these was the Pepsi–sponsored Men’s Service Center at 47th Street.

Across town at Grand Central, soldiers had this “Service Men’s Lounge” for relaxing, playing pool and ping pong, and reading in the library.

Bits of a Brooklyn hamlet named for a freed slave

May 30, 2016

In 1839, Brooklyn was booming—and changing.

The former village had become an actual city just five years earlier. The growing population of approximately 40,000 residents included free black men and women, as slavery had been abolished statewide in 1827.

Amid this transformation, the Lefferts family, one of Kings County’s biggest landowners, began selling off farmland in the Bedford section of the city.

In 1838, an African-American named Henry C. Thompson purchased 32 lots. A year later, he sold two lots at Dean Street and Troy Avenue to James Weeks, a Virginia-born stevedore thought to have been a freed slave.

WeeksvilleBHSmap

So began the settlement of Weeksville, a village of African Americans with its own school, churches, businesses, baseball team (the Weeksville Unknowns), and newspaper, the Freedman’s Torchlight.

Weeksville also had a main street on a former Indian trail called Hunterfly Road. On the map above, part of Hunterfly can be seen jutting out on the far right.

WeeksvilleBHS

Like the rest of Kings County, Weeksville thrived in the 19th century. By 1855, it had 531 residents occupying tidy, wood-frame houses.

“Here, [residents] had a chance to control their own lives,” wrote Judith Wellman in Brooklyn’s Promised Land.

Weeksvillehouses2016“They could grow their own gardens, feed their own chickens, and keep dogs or goats, pigs, a cow or two, and a horse if they wished. People could walk everywhere.

“And if they wanted more than they could buy in local stores or more work than they could find in Weeksville, they traveled to downtown Brooklyn, just a 10-minute ride on the Long Island Rail Road, where work was plentiful and ferries crossed the river to Manhattan.”

Weeksville was a haven for former slaves before the Civil War, and the community also welcomed black New Yorkers fleeing racially motivated terror during the Draft Riots in 1863.

Notable residents found a home there, such as Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the first African-American female physician in New York.

WeeksvillebrooklyncornerYet like so many other enclaves, Weeksville was a victim of Brooklyn’s success.

The opening of Eastern Parkway in the 1870s ushered in development and a population surge. An expanded street grid obliterated small villages.

Weeksville turned into more of a mixed-race neighborhood after the Civil War and then was largely absorbed into urbanized Brooklyn.

“Who knowsh where Weeksville is? a 1935 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle asked readers, somewhat rhetorically.

WeeksvillehunterflyplaceIn the 1960s, Brooklyn would rediscover Weeksville.

Researchers combed the streets of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant and found four wood frame homes dating between 1840 and 1880.

Renovated and redone with period furnishings, the homes are among the remnants of Weeksville that have survived into the 21st century.

A bit of Hunterfly Road, plus curious found objects such as a tintype of a well-dressed young woman (top right), also remain. The former location of the village is now a landmarked site with a visitor’s center.

[Top image: Weeksville Heritage Center; second image: public domain; third image: Brooklyn Historical Society]

Vintage signs from a rough around the edges city

May 30, 2016

Some of these 1970s and 1980s–era signs are losing the battle with the elements, like this hand-painted original for Utica Avenue Electronics (VCRs!) in Crown Heights.

Signsuticaaveelectronics

Others advertise small businesses in a contemporary city that can be cruel to struggling mom and pop shops.

Perhaps that’s why Continental Shoe Repairs on Broadway and Barclay Street is no longer open.

Signscontinentalshoerepairs

The sign for Ashland Pharmacy, in Fort Greene, notes that they accept the union plan.

Which union plan? In an older New York, when health insurance wasn’t quite so complicated, the distinction may not have mattered.

Signsashlandpharmacy

City Water Meter Repair Co., Inc. is the only water meter repair shop I’ve ever seen.

Based on the condition of the sign (N.Y. City!), it looks like they’ve been around since the East Village’s heyday as a slumlord neighborhood.

Signscitywatermeterrepaircoinc

You have to love Fort Grene’s Luv-n-Oven Pizza: the rhyming name, the old-school white, green, and red sign, the fact that gyros and hamburgers are on the menu.

Signsluvnovenpizza

A classic greasy New York corner pizza place that is making me hungry just looking at it.

Escaping the day in the Bleecker Street Cinema

May 26, 2016

These days at 144 Bleecker Street, you’ll find a Duane Reade. But quite a different world existed there between 1960 and 1990.

Bleeckerstreetcinema

For 30 years, the two 1832 row houses at this address housed what used to be called a revival theater or art house theater—a place to catch offbeat, experimental, and foreign films before these categories were lumped together as independent cinema.

There was no surround sound or seats with cup holders. Yet the marquee in this 1960s photo looking toward LaGuardia Place hints at the treasures that awaited viewers who ducked inside to escape a dreary New York day.

[Photo: Robert Otter]

The remains of a luxury ship at a Brooklyn church

May 26, 2016

NormandieposterThe biggest bottle of champagne in the world helped christen the French luxury liner the S.S. Normandie when it first launched in 1932.

Too bad this nautical marvel and Art Deco beauty didn’t plough the Atlantic for long.

In 1941, after the Germans took over France and with the Normandie safely docked in New York, the U.S. Coast Guard seized control of the ship.

The plan was to renovate the 1,000-foot liner into a ship for troops and to rename it the USS Lafayette.

Workers were busily converting the 1,000-foot vessel when it caught fire and capsized in its berth on the Hudson in February 1942.

Normandieonitsside1942

The destruction of the Normandie—everyone thought it was sabotage, but that wasn’t the case—was major news in wartime New York City.

People lined up to view its remains, as Pete Hamill recalls in his memoir, A Drinking Life:

Normandiedoors

“[His mother] took us there again and again, to gaze at its parched hull, more than a thousand feet long, its giant propellers high out of the water. In my memory, the ruined liner looks humiliated, like a drunk who has fallen down in public.”

After the Normandie was hauled away, its ruins were sold for scrap metal—with a few exceptions.

Normandiedoors2

NormandiechurchThe magnificent doors of the first class dining room from the Normandie’s luxury liner days were salvaged by Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral (right) in Brooklyn Heights.

To this day, the doors—with their intricate medallions showing scenes and sights in Normandy and lovely carvings of trees and leaves—greet visitors to the church at two different entrances at Henry and Remsen Streets.

They’re a quiet remnant of New York during World War II, a time that fewer and fewer residents have any memory of.

A hidden Village memorial to a 1930s sports hero

May 26, 2016

HankgreenberghomeOn the slender stretch of Barrow Street just west of Sheridan Square is a typical old-school city tenement.

Blending in discreetly on the outside of 16 Barrow Street is a weathered plaque honoring an early occupant: baseball all-star Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (below in 1933).

The Hebrew Hammer, as one of his nicknames went, lived there for a year after his birth in 1911, after which his family moved to a tenement on Perry Street.

Greenberg never played for a New York team; he spent his long career through the 1930s and 1940s slugging it out for the Detroit Tigers.

Hankgreenberg1933He made a name for himself not just as an excellent ballplayer but as the first Jewish superstar (his parents were Romanian-born Orthodox Jews).

In his memoir, The Story of My Life, he recalls the Village back in the 1910s.

“Baseball didn’t exist in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The neighborhood kids played one-o-cat, or stickball, or some other game that could be played on a city street.

“There was no place to play baseball, and nobody thought about the game, or missed it. Kids down in the Village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities.”

Hankgreenbergplaque

The Greenbergs decided the neighborhood was too rough and relocated to the Bronx. At Monroe High School, Hank began playing the game that earned him fame and fortune.

A creepy bat on a West End Avenue row house

May 23, 2016

BattownhouserowHorses, dogs, cats, squirrels—New York building facades are decorated with a huge variety of animal figures.

Yet I’m pretty sure this is the first bat I’ve ever come across.

He’s enjoying the warm evening on a playfully ornamented Queen Anne row house on West End Avenue at about West 76th Street.

Often a particular animal symbolizes something. Honeybees adorn bank buildings because they stand for industry and thrift. Owls convey knowledge, which is why they tend to be built on schools and libraries.

Battownhousefigure

But a bat? I think it’s just the architect with a dark sense of humor.

Among the other animals adorning the row house or its neighbors are rams, owls, and somethings that look to be inspired by sea horses.

A rocky West Side knoll inspires Edgar Allan Poe

May 23, 2016

 

PoedaguerreotypeIn 1844, Edgar Allan Poe had a lot on his mind.

Though he’d already published some short stories and newspaper pieces, Poe was still a struggling writer working on a poem called The Raven and editing articles for the Evening Mirror.

He also had his young wife to worry about. Virginia Clemm was sick with tuberculosis.

Instead of living downtown or in Greenwich Village, as the couple had in 1837, they moved to a country farmhouse roughly at today’s Broadway and 84th Street.

 At the time, this was part of the bucolic village of Bloomingdale. Fresh air, the thinking was, might help ease Virginia’s illness.

Poebrennanfarmhouse1879mcny

When Poe needed to get away from the farmhouse (above, in 1879) and seek inspiration, he went to a rocky knoll of Manhattan schist in the woods overlooking the Hudson River, on the border of the not-yet-created Riverside Park.

He named it Mount Tom, after young Thomas Brennan, the son of the farmhouse’s owner. This outcropping still exists at the end of West 83rd Street (below).

Poemounttom20162

“It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom,’ an immense rock, which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit alone for hours, gazing at the Hudson,” states this 1903 Poe biography.

“Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting on [Mount Tom] and gazing across the then-rural riverland north of the city,” according to this collection of Poe’s work.

Poemounttom2016Poe himself wrote about Manhattan’s rocky topography in an 1844 dispatch to a Pennsylvania newspaper, finding the city’s “certain air of rocky sterility” to be “sublime.”

In the same dispatch, he bemoaned Manhattan’s development and the end of its rural, spacious charm.

“The spirit of Improvement has withered [old picturesque mansions] with its acrid breath,” he wrote.

“Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them. . . . In some 30 years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

PoestreetnamePoe didn’t last long on West 84th Street. After The Raven was published in 1845 and turned him into a literary sensation, he and Virginia moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx.

Tuberculosis took Virginia in 1847; Poe left the Bronx and found himself in Baltimore, where he died, perhaps from alcoholism, in 1849.

I wonder what he would think of contemporary West 84th Street bearing his name?

[Second image: MCNY.org Greatest Grid exhibit]

A Gilded Age painter’s springtime New York

May 23, 2016

I used to think that Frederick Childe Hassam’s most evocative paintings were his moody, poetic winter scenes of turn of the century New York.

HassamLowerFifthAvenue1890

But his Impressionist renderings of Manhattan in springtime—lush parks, rainy blue twilight, and exaggerated pastel skies—are just as striking.

Hassamfifthavenuenocturne1895

“Lower Fifth Avenue,” at top, depicts the lights and shadows of what appears to be an early spring day in 1890, warm enough to do without overcoats and for leaves to appear on fledgling trees.

Hassamunionsquarespring1896

“New York is the most beautiful city in the world,” Hassam reportedly said, citing Fifth Avenue as the city’s loveliest street. “Fifth Avenue Nocturne,” from 1895, gives us sidewalks slicked with rain and illuminated by electric lights.

Union Square is an oasis of lush greenery amid the backdrop of a gray city in 1896’s “Union Square in Spring.”

Hassamwashingtonsquarearch1890

The stretch of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to Washington Square was Hassam’s milieu; no surprise, as he had studios at Fifth and 17th and 95 Fifth Avenue in the 1880s and 1890s.

“Washington Arch, Spring,” from 1890, shows what Hassam called “humanity in motion,” which he considered his primary subject and theme.

An old Brooklyn phone exchange comes into view

May 16, 2016

Hidden behind the shrubs in front of a residence on West 12th Street is this small weathered sign for a fence company—complete with an original vintage phone exchange!

Cloverdalesign2

Bucolic-sounding Cloverdale covered the Flatlands area of Brooklyn beginning in 1928. Like New York’s other two-letter neighborhood exchanges, it was officially replaced by seven digits in the 1960s.

JRMoyersonsadJ. R. Moyer Sons doesn’t appear to be in business on Utica Avenue in Flatlands anymore. The last Google-able trace of the company dates to the 1970s. I wonder how long the fence sign has been hanging there.

More hiding-in-plain sight vintage phone exchanges can still be found all over New York . . . if you look very carefully.


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