Archive for March, 2009

A smooth ride through the Holland Tunnel

March 30, 2009

If only vehicles went through the tunnel with this kind of ease and order all the time. Before the Holland Tunnel opened in November 1927, the only way to cross the Hudson River was by one of 15 different ferry lines.


The tunnel was named after its chief engineer, Clifford Milburn Holland, who died before it was finished. The heart attack that killed him was attributed in part to the stress of working on the tunnel.

This 1920s postcard is part of the Walker Evans collection on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a great exhibit with lots of New York postcards capturing the pre-war city—definitely worth a visit.

Ninth Avenue’s shrinking Little Italy

March 30, 2009

There used to be several Italian neighborhoods in Manhattan, like the Pleasant Avenue vicinity in East Harlem (still home to Rao’s, the Mafia and celeb hangout) and in the South Village centered along Bleecker Street.

Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen was another one. The neighborhood is now Duane Reade-ified and its ethnic groups (Irish, Italian, Greek, among others) dispersed, but some of these old Italian-American businesses survive.

Like Mazzella’s Market, selling produce for more than 75 years:


Not too many store signs contain the word “grosseria” anymore:


Rib bellies! Smoked loins! Pig toes! All that and more are available at Esposito Pork Shop:


Before women broke a sweat at the gym . . .

March 30, 2009

They signed up for “body conditioning” courses at discreetly named places like the American Women’s Club, as seen in this ad from the November 25, 1939 Brooklyn edition of Cue magazine.


353 West 57th Street is now the Hudson Hotel, a glammed-up version of the 1929 building that originally housed the American Woman’s Association. This organization was started by Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, to advance the cause of working women. 

The swimming pool, badminton courts, and “scientific massages” didn’t exactly draw them in; the organization gave up the building in 1941.

Who is watching Lincoln’s funeral procession?

March 27, 2009

See the two little figures looking out the second-floor window facing south in the building on the corner? Supposedly it’s a young Teddy Roosevelt and his brother Elliot (future father of Eleanor); they’re viewing President Lincoln’s funeral procession. The future president would have been seven years old when this picture was taken on April 25, 1865.

That’s his grandfather Cornelius Roosevelt’s property on Broadway between 13th and 14th Streets; the procession is heading to Union Square.


Cornelius Roosevelt’s house was torn down and an eight-story terra cotta and brick structure put in its place in 1894. Called the Roosevelt Building, it stands at 13th and Broadway today.

A lost alligator in an East Harlem sewer

March 27, 2009

Every New Yorker has heard urban legends about alligators skulking inside the city’s warm, wet sewer system. But there actually is at least one record of a gator spotted underground.

alligatorcolorIt happened on February 9, 1935. According to a next-day story in The New York Times, some teenage boys shoveling snow into the sewer on East 123rd Street peered through an open manhole and saw an 8-foot alligator “threshing about in the ice.” 

After getting some rope and lassoing the reptile, they pulled it to the street, where the gator started snapping his jaws. “Curiosity and empathy turned to enmity,” the article explained. The boys proceeded to beat it to death with their shovels.

So how did the gator get to Harlem? The theory was that “a steamer from the mysterious Everglades, or thereabouts, had been passing 123rd Street, and an alligator had fallen overboard,” the article reported rather dramatically. nycmanholecover.jpg

“Shunning the hatefully cold water, it had swum toward shore and found only the entrance to the conduit. Then after another 150 yards through a torrent of melting snow—and by that time it was half dead—it had arrived under the open manhole.”

All that way only to be clobbered to death with snow shovels.

The pink schoolhouse off Flatbush Avenue

March 27, 2009

Downtown Brooklyn can be an awfully drab place. But then at the juncture of Flatbush Avenue, Third Avenue, and Schermerhorn Street stands this lovely pink school building.


Now it houses something called Metropolitan Corporate Academy. But it used to be a regular grade school; you can still make out the words “public school” inscribed above the front door.

Kids sure had some cute buildings to doze off in back in the day.

South Beach, Staten Island style

March 25, 2009

It has absolutely nothing in common with South Beach, Miami, except for the name. The Staten Island version was developed as a seaside resort in the 1880s. A two-and-a-half mile boardwalk went up in the 1930s, and the beach now has amazing views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

This postcard looks like it dates to the 1920s. Love the water slide.


Was a Brooklyn doctor really Jack the Ripper?

March 25, 2009

Meet Francis Tumblety, a quack “Indian Herb” doctor who opened shop in the 1860s first in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan. Some Ripperologists think he may be the homicidal maniac who murdered at least 11 women in London’s East End in 1888.

francistumblety Tumblety frequently traveled to England and was arrested there in November 1888 for “gross indecency” (Victorian-speak for homosexual acts). Supposedly he had been out on bail at the time of the final murder, so he could have been the killer.

His personal demeanor didn’t help him escape suspicion. He was notoriously eccentric, a hater of women, and had previously been linked to (but never charged with) patient deaths across the U.S. 

And in an odd twist, his assistant in Brooklyn, David Herold, had been hanged two decades earlier for being in on the Lincoln assassination plot. Tumblety was arrested in 1865 on the same charge but was quickly deemed to be innocent. 

So was Tumblety Jack the Ripper? We’ll probably never know, of course. After being released on bail in England in 1888 and considered a suspect in the Ripper murders, he fled the country, eventually making his way back to the states. He died in St. Louis in 1903.

If you’re thinking of living on Park Avenue

March 25, 2009

And it was the height of the Great Depression, you’d probably end up checking out these attractive rentals, advertised in August 17, 1935 issue of The New Yorker.

At just three or four rooms, these at 929 Park seem awfully cozy:


More than 40 blocks south, in exclusive Murray Hill, you can have seven rooms and a wood-burning fireplace:


Alice in Wonderland waiting for the subway

March 23, 2009

Alice had her adventures underground after falling down the rabbit hole. So it’s fitting that these mosaic murals of her, the Mad Hatter, and other characters can be found underground on the 1 train platform in the 50th Street station.


Installed in 1994, the murals are collectively called “Alice: the Way Out” by artist Liliana Porter. 


Alice isn’t only underground in New York City; the beloved Alice in Wonderland sculpture is in Central Park off East 74th Street.