The coolest neon green subway sign in Brooklyn

November 30, 2015

At the Jay Street-MetroTech station in downtown Brooklyn, you’ll see subway signage like this one lining the entrance.


It lights up lime green, and the typeface and design has an Art Deco or Modernist look to it. I don’t think there’s another sign like it anywhere in the city.

The insane 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River

November 30, 2015

Tired of New York’s terrible traffic and lack of housing options?

It might be time to revisit one of the nuttier ideas for reshaping and redeveloping Manhattan ever proposed: draining the Hudson River and then paving it over.


This idea doesn’t seem to be a hoax. It was covered in the March 1934 edition of Modern Mechanix in a wild article entitled “Filling in the Hudson.”

FillinginhudsonmagcoverThe terrifying illustration on the opening page shows the Hudson River dammed up and filled in from Lower Manhattan to the tip of Harlem.

The plan, proposed by “noted publicist and engineering scholar” Norman Sper, would “reclaim” from the Hudson River 10 square miles, which would “not only provide for thousands of additional buildings, but also for avenues and cross streets,” to ease congestion.

“Today there are ten avenues laid out along the length of Manhattan,” proclaims the article. “These are crossed by 125 streets. It is the lack of up-and-down arteries which has given rise to the existing traffic crisis. Sper would double the number of avenues.”

The water from the Hudson River would be diverted into the Harlem River and the East River. The entire project was supposed to cost the city a cool $1 billion.


It’s unclear how far this idea went; it doesn’t appear to have been covered in any of the major dailies. And since there is no 15th Avenue running through the middle of the Hudson, obviously no one ever took it seriously.

Check out more crazy plans and proposals for New York City that thankfully never made it past the blueprint stage.

A New York painter’s magical wintertime city

November 30, 2015

There’s no snow in the forecast just yet. But winter is right around the corner.

And even New Yorkers who have no love for cold weather concede that the city blanketed in snow, especially at twilight illuminated by streetlamps, is magical and enchanting.


Guy Carleton Wiggins saw something enchanting about snow too.

An Impressionist painter who was born into an artistic Brooklyn family in 1883, Wiggins created many lovely scenes of a snowy 20th century Manhattan. (Above: “A Winter’s Evening in New York”; below: “The Circle”)


He depicted blue-gray skies above snow-dusted horses and carriages, skyscrapers and statues, and masses of pedestrians, huddled under umbrellas or tucking their chins into their necks to stay dry.

The son of painter Carleton Wiggins, Guy Wiggins studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri and found early success. His snow scenes take place at Columbus Circle, along Wall Street, on Fifth Avenue, and at other less recognizable points on the cityscape. (Below: “Brooklyn Bridge in Winter”)

Wiggins452 Wiggins' "Brooklyn Bridge in Winter"

In an interview with the Detroit News (by way of the Rehs Galleries Inc), Wiggins explained how an elevated train chugging through a blizzard outside his studio window inspired his work. (Below: “A Winter Night in New York”)


“One cold, blustering, snowy winter day (1912) I was in my New York studio trying to paint a summer landscape,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins1910“Suddenly I saw what was before me—an elevated railroad track, with a train dashing madly through the whirling blizzard-like snow that made hazy and indistinct the row of buildings on the far side of the street.”

“In a week, so to say, I was established as a painter of city winter scenes, and I found it profitable. Then suddenly I felt a revulsion against them and I stopped. . . . I couldn’t go on with winter stuff and that was all there was to it.”

[Wiggins, 1910]

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

“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!


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