A view of an unfinished Central Park in 1862

November 23, 2015

Isn’t that a not-quite-completed Bethesda Terrace and the Central Park Lake on the far left?


Landscape painter George Loring Brown depicts a very rustic Central Park in 1862, after the park had officially opened but with much more work to still be done. The city looms to the south.

The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York

November 23, 2015

It’s one of the strangest holiday traditions in late 19th and early 20th century New York City.


On Thanksgiving day, kids (and often adults as well) used to dress up in costume (cowboys, pirates, and princesses were big) or in their most threadbare clothes and go door to door in the neighborhood, asking, anything for Thanksgiving?

How the tradition started isn’t all that clear. Though New Yorkers had been celebrating Thanksgiving as an official holiday since 1817, it was only nationalized in 1864.


Somehow, a day to feast on turkey (and later watch football games) became associated with a practice that was part Mardi Gras, part modern-day Halloween.

These ragamuffins, as the kids were called, charmed (and sometimes irritated) New Yorkers; they begged for nickels and pennies and played jokes.


In some areas, these “masqueraders” even won prizes for the best getup.

“In the old days,” a policeman recalled in a New York Times article from 1930, “the Hudson Dusters, and the Rangers and the Blue Shirts used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costume and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.”


Of course, this old-school tradition couldn’t last. In the 1930s, the schools superintendent discouraged the tradition. Soon, only kids who lived in neighborhoods where the “subway lines end,” as the Times put it, continued to dress up, beg, and play pranks.


As another policeman the Times spoke to in 1947 remarked, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.” (Red because they were heated on the stove, intended to burn little kid hands.)

“But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore,” he added.

[Photos: LOC; Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NYPL Digital Collection; NYPL Digital Collection; LOC]

From wealthy socialite to women’s rights activist

November 23, 2015

AlvabelmontyoungWhen she was known as Alva Vanderbilt, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City.

And as a young wife and mother in the 1870s and 1880s, Alva was determined to spend big bucks to secure a place for her family in the city’s stuffy, old money society run by Mrs. Caroline Astor.

To become part of the so-called Astor 400, she built a magnificent French renaissance mansion at Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, modestly christened Petite Chateau (below).


She then threw a housewarming party in the form of a masquerade ball and invited 1,200 of New York’s richest residents, who feasted and danced while dressed as kings and queens. (Alva, right, as a “Venetian renaissance lady.”)

And when she couldn’t score a box seat at the Academy of Music on 14th Street, the city’s premier opera house at the time, she convinced other new rich New Yorkers to pitch in money to build the more opulent Metropolitan Opera House, which opened in 1883.

After finally breaking into formal society, she divorced her husband in 1895 and married another enormously rich man, Oliver H.P. Belmont.

For the next decade, she resumed life as a society matron, entertaining and building incredible mansions in New York and Newport, Rhode Island.

AlvavanderbiltlepetitechateauAfter Belmont died in 1908, however, Alva traded mansions and balls for activism. Instead of putting her money toward estates and entertaining, she began funding causes that advanced women’s rights.

That year, she founded the Political Equality Association and gave millions in support of the fight for suffrage both in the United States and in Great Britain.

Inspired by dedicated suffragists like Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst, she helped launch the National Women’s Party, and she opened her mansion doors in New York City and Newport for rallies and events. (Above: 1912 Suffragist Parade, New York City.)


Her devotion to women’s rights expanded even after 1920. She helped support working women’s groups. The former wife of two famous capitalists even helped keep Socialist magazine the Masses financially viable.

Alvavanderbilt1920She was living in France in 1932 when she suffered a stroke. At her funeral in early 1933, friends and family draped a banner across the coffin that read “failure is impossible,” per her instructions.

The woman who early in her life dedicated herself to becoming part of an American aristocracy made women’s rights around the world her lasting legacy.

A traffic-free Queensboro Bridge in the 1950s

November 16, 2015

It’s officially called the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and since going up in 1909, it’s had other alias, such as the 59th Street Bridge, and the Blackwell’s Island Bridge.

There was even a push to name it the Montauk Bridge (Queensboro sounded too British to some Irish New Yorkers).


This spot looks close to where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton took in the view in a famous scene from 1979’s Manhattan.

Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

November 16, 2015

FrenchquarterboulangerieThe Germans had Kleindeutschland in the East Village. The Chinese had Mott Street. Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side.

And from the 1870s to 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in today’s Soho, roughly between Washington Square South and Grand Street and West Broadway and Greene Street.

Bakeries, butchers, cafes, shops, and “innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner, vin compris, may be had for the veriest trifle” occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.


An 1879 article in Scribner’s Monthly took readers on a wildly descriptive sojourn through the Quartier Francais, as the writer calls it.

FrenchquarterrestaurantIt’s not always so flattering. “The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

The writer of the article walked readers past tenements, with young girls fabricating fake flowers inside, to cafes where patrons drink absinthe.

A shop run by an old woman features this sign: “sabots et galoches chaussons de Strasbourg.” A restaurant called the Grand Vatel (right) “has some queer patrons.”

FrenchquartertavernealsacienneOn Greene Street is the Tavene Alsacienne (left), with its “impoverished bar” and worn billiards table, and groups of coatless men absorbed in their games.

Table d’Hote restaurants abound. “In the French Quarter in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, and elsewhere downtown, are several unique and low-priced establishments of this character,” according to King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Frenchquarter2015Like so many ethnic neighborhoods, this French Quarter didn’t last. By the turn of the century, the city’s small French colony relocated to West Chelsea.

“Twenty-sixth Street west of Sixth Avenue begins to take on the air of the old French Quarter,” reported The Sun in 1894.

“It has several French restaurants, three or four French shoemakers . . . a French grocer or two, and several French bushelling tailors.”

[Top image: NYPL Buttolph Collection of menus; sketches from Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879]

Faded outlines of an infamous Flatiron love nest

November 16, 2015

Stanford White was one of New York’s great architects. He was also a notorious womanizer known for seducing teenage girls, preferably showgirls.


To facilitate this, the married White kept a secret apartment at 22 West 24th Street, just off Madison Square Park. From the outside, it was plain and unspectacular.

StanfordwhitephotoInside, however, was a seducer’s love nest, complete with mirrored walls, velvet couches, colored lights, a four-poster bed, and of course, a red velvet swing.

It was the same swing he pushed 16-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit in, not long before he lowered her defenses with champagne and raped her in 1901.

Nesbit wasn’t the only girl he took to 22 West 24th Street. But she was the only one who ended up telling the world about what happened there, after she took the stand during a murder trial that had the entire city’s attention.

Five years after White assaulted her, Nesbit’s new husband, Harry Thaw, took out a pistol and shot and killed White in the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden.

Thaw was unstable, wildly jealous of White, and obsessed with avenging his wife’s honor.

Evelynesbit1901At Thaw’s trial in 1907, Nesbit recalled the events of the night White raped her and what the inside of his multi-level seduction lair was like.

[As a reader points out below, Nesbit’s take has to be looked at through a gimlet eye. She had her own interests (and reputation) to protect, and White was not around to counter her testimony. But here is her story.]

The first time she visited, she was with a girlfriend; White and another man convinced the two girls to get in the swing, and they pushed them from behind.

“Their toes struck the crisp paper covering of a great Japanese fan swung from the ceiling, ripping the fan to tatters,” wrote the New York Times in an article chronicling the trial.

The second time, with her mother out of town, White invited Nesbit to a party he said he was having at 24th Street. When she arrived, she was the only one there.

EvelynnesbitnytimesWhite “asked her to let him show her his antiques and beautiful things, and disclosed a narrow stairway leading from the studio upward,” stated the Times.

“She followed him to a room in which there was a piano and many objects of art. She thrummed the piano for a moment, then White bade her to go into the next room with him.”

“The room was chintz covered. It was a bedroom, and there was a table and chair beside the bed in it.”

Evelynnesbit22west24thstphoto2007White poured her a glass of champagne and made her drink it, she told the court. Then, “there was the sound of thumping in her head, she said, and the chintz bedroom began to whirl about.”

Next thing she knew, she woke up in the bed surrounded by mirrors. She screamed and went home, and the next day, White “praised her beauty and her youth, told her how he liked girls, and said he would do a great many things for her,” wrote the Times.

After two trials, Thaw got off on an insanity defense. White’s former love nest on 24th Street fell into disrepair and collapsed in 2007 (right). All that remains is its faded outline.

[Bottom photo: Don Hogan Charles/New York Times]

Listening to the orchestra play in Central Park

November 9, 2015

A century before Summerstage and free shows by Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel, Central Park hosted free concerts.


First given in the Ramble, “concerts soon moved to the Mall, where the tradition grew into the 20th century,” states nycgovparks.org.

“At the northern end of the Mall, an elaborate cast-iron bandstand once stood (on the present site of the bust of composer Ludwig von Beethoven). Thousands of people would attend open-air performances. To prevent the landscape from being damaged during musical performances, fences that also provided seating for concertgoers were cleverly designed by Calvert Vaux.”

The men in these crowds look like sitting ducks for the Straw Hat Riot instigators!

The slow fade of Brooklyn’s Times Plaza district

November 9, 2015

Today the name only remains on the Times Plaza Station, a post office built in 1925 on Atlantic Avenue between Third and Fourth Avenues.


But the area once known as Times Plaza—with aspirations to be as fabled as Manhattan’s Times Square, perhaps—was a bustling triangle amid the crossroads of the borough’s busiest thoroughfares.

Timesplazaeaglead1917Times Plaza had a handsome hotel as well as its own subway entrance, a gorgeous jewel box originally called the Times Plaza Control House after it opened in 1908. (Today, it’s the restored Heins & LaFarge kiosk with “Atlantic Avenue” on the facade.)

This transit hub also had shops and offices for the Brooklyn Daily Times, the newspaper that officially lent its name to the area in 1917.

Timesplazaskyscraper“Times Plaza: the triangular space bounded by Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth Avenues, recently so named by resolution of the Board of Aldermen,” this Brooklyn Daily Eagle ad proclaims excitedly.

In the 1920s, Times Plaza gained a polished, towering neighbor: the 37-story Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, across Atlantic Avenue.

When the Times Plaza designation fell out of favor is a mystery.

The newspaper folded into the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1937; the hotel hung on at least through the 1950s. It’s now the Muhlenberg Residence, for formerly homeless men.


Like Ponkiesberg, Greenfield, South Brooklyn, and countless other vanished villages and towns in Kings County, Times Plaza is another no-longer-there enclave swallowed up by an always-changing borough.

[Hotel postcard: digitalcommonwealth.org]

A plane collides with a Macy’s Thanksgiving float

November 9, 2015

Ever since Macy’s added balloon floats to their iconic Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927, mishaps and fails have become regular occurrences.


Felix the Cat (above) got tangled in telephone wires that year. Popeye dumped cold rainwater that had collected on his cap onto the crowd in 1957. And poor Kermit the Frog; his head sadly deflated in 1991.

ParadefloatairplaneheadlineBut at least it’s been 83 years since a float was hit by an airplane.

This midair collision happened in 1932 over a heavily populated area of Jamaica, Queens—long after the parade had ended and the helium-filled balloons were released into the sky (the custom in the early 1930s).

Annette Gipson, 22, happened to be at the controls of a biplane with her instructor, flying at 5,000 feet.

TomcatannettegipsonAll of a sudden, the brazen “girl flyer,” as newspapers dubbed Gipson, noticed the 60-foot Tom-Cat balloon coming her way.

“She shouted, ‘I think I’ll have a piece of the neck’ to [her instructor], as she took dead aim at the cat,” reports the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin and sped toward the ground out of control.”

Afraid that the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, Gipson turned off the ignition. “Witnesses in the surrounding neighborhoods, straining their necks to look skyward, gasped as they heard the engine die and saw the plane plummeting to earth.”

Before it did, her instructor managed to take over. As the craft came within 80 feet of rooftops, he got control and was able to land at Roosevelt Field, as planned.


Considering that she almost crash-landed in the middle of Queens, Gipson was nonplussed.

Tomcatheadline2“It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind,” she told reporters who had rushed out to Roosevelt Field to speak to her after they’d been tipped off about her collision.

Gipson went on to become a prominent “aviatrix,” as the newspapers called her, touring the country and hosting headline-grabbing women-only air races at Floyd Bennett Field.

The old-school soda sign of a Brooklyn grocery

November 2, 2015

As mom and pop delis and luncheonettes disappear from the five boroughs, so do the wonderful “privilege” signs affixed to them.


But one continues to hang on in Brooklyn at the leafy, brownstone-beautiful corner of Lafayette Avenue and Cumberland Street.

Lafayettecumberlandcokesigncornr“Lafayete” Grocery & Dairy is a bodega that maintains a vintage Coca-Cola sign.

There’s no word on exactly how old the sign is, but oddly, it was spelled correctly back in 2009 before the place underwent a renovation.

Much older signage can be seen on facade of the building, which likely went up in the 1870s (and once served as home base of the New Diamond Point Pen Company): the names Lafayette and what looks like Cumberland carved in the corner.


These corner-cut street signs can be seen all over New York’s oldest neighborhoods.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,286 other followers