Archive for July, 2009

The Butcher of Tompkins Square Park

July 28, 2009

Twenty years ago, in August 1989, East Village police began hearing rumors of a gruesome crime: A person had been killed, the body dismembered and boiled into soup—then the soup fed to unsuspecting homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. 

700eastninthstreetShockingly, the rumors turned out to be true. That September, cops arrested Daniel Rakowitz, a 28-year-old park regular who carried a chicken on his shoulder and called himself a “marijuana guru.”

Rakowitz was charged with murdering and dismembering the body of his girlfriend, 26-year-old Monika Beerle. The murder was committed in Rakowitz’s tenement building at 700 Avenue C, on the corner of Ninth Street. 

RakowitzThe details are pretty lurid. Rakowitz left Beerle’s skull in a storage area at the Port Authority Bus Terminal (in a bucket of cat litter no less).

Though he denied killed Beerle, a Swiss resident studying dance who supported herself as a topless dancer (gritty old Billy’s Topless on 24th Street, according to some accounts), he admitted to chopping her corpse, bleaching her bones, and hiding her body.

In 1991, Rakowitz was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to a maximum-security psychiatric facility on Ward’s Island, where he still lives today.

The opening of the West Side Express Highway

July 28, 2009

Planned in the 1920s to ease New York’s traffic hell, the West Side Express Highway opened in various stages beginning in 1930. Also known as the Miller Elevated, it stretched from downtown to 72nd Street.


It looks pretty and spotless in this 1930 postcard. By the 1960s, it was rusted out and in disrepair, and huge chunks occasionally fell onto the streets beneath it. Wisely, the city tore it down in the 1970s and 1980s.

New York City’s long list of defunct newspapers

July 28, 2009

It’s hard to believe that in the 1890s, New York’s population of just a million and a half residents supported 19 daily English-language newspapers—along with scores of weeklies and foreign dailies.


These papers were an illustrious bunch. There was the anti-immigrant New York Herald; publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., reportedly said that a newspaper’s role is “not to instruct but to startle.”

The New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer, was hugely popular with working class residents. It was known for stunt journalism—as well as printing its Sunday supplement in color.

The dead newspaper list also includes the New York Sun, the New York Journal American, the New York Mirror, and the often-lamented Brooklyn Eagle.

Many were headquartered around City Hall, then nicknamed Newspaper Row. This thermometer/clock affixed to the old New York Sun building down on Chambers Street doesn’t work, but it’s a nice remnant of the neighborhood’s past.

How New Yorkers survived hot summer nights

July 23, 2009

The city in July and August is supposed to be insanely hot and sticky. And when an oppressive heat wave strikes, New Yorkers suffer, sweat, and ask the same question: How did city residents handle it years ago without air conditioning or even fans? 

FireescapesleepingWell, there was always the fire escape. It looks like a ridiculously dangerous place to sleep in this 1938 Weegee photo, but it must have been better than baking in a tenement bedroom.

You could also spend the night in a park, on the street, or sprawled out on the beach, as thousands did.

“In Central Park the lawns were crowded before darkness with family groups,” reported the July 10, 1936 New York Times; the temperature had reached an astounding 106 degrees the day before. “On the Lower East Side traffic was seriously impeded as small armies of persons emerged from tenement houses with chairs, boxes and even beds which they set up in the streets.”

And from the Times on August 4, 1938, when the mercury hit 93 degrees:

“More than 3,000 persons slept on the sand at Coney Island and Brighton Beach to escape the heat last night, the police estimated. Ten additional patrolmen were assigned to the area to prevent molestation of the sleepers, many of whom brought blankets and sheets.” 

“A frolic at Rockaway Beach”

July 23, 2009

In 1903, when his photo was taken, Rockaway Beach was earning a rep as “New York’s Playground.” Rockaway Playland amusement park had just been built in 1901, and thousands of city residents regularly crowded the boardwalk and beach.


Like so many other city neighborhoods, Rockaway Beach began its decline after World War II. It’s still hanging in there, just an A train ride away, luring day trippers and surfers in search of New York’s best waves.

The famous alumni of Midwood High School

July 23, 2009

What do Woody Allen, Marvin Hamlisch, and Emmanuel Lewis all have in common? All three graduated from Brooklyn’s Midwood High School. Woody got his diploma in 1953, Hamlisch in the early 1960s, and Webster in the ’80s.

MidwoodhighOther famous Midwood students include Grease‘s Didi Conn, poet June Jordan, and Prison Break star Wentworth Miller (though Miller transferred elsewhere before graduating).

For a school known for its math and science brainiacs, Midwood seems to produce a lot of actors and musicians too.

Midwood was built in 1940 on Bedford Avenue and Glenwood Road; construction costs ran to $2 million. Looks like the board of education got a good deal. It’s a lovely looking school building, with its six columns and cupola crowning the top.

Another day on Avenue B and 14th Street

July 20, 2009

This 1918 photo, from a postcard available at the South Street Seaport Museum, gives a nice snapshot of life at one ordinary Manhattan street corner.

AvenueB1918There’s a street lamp with humpback-style street signs, a tenement building that would have been about 20 years old at the time, an ad for a long-gone cigarette brand, a fire box, and a newspaper box extolling pedestrians to “read the New York Herald.”

A corner bar advertises “pure lager beer ales & porter.”

The best details are the people. A little girl snacking, a woman in a doorway with something wrapped around her head, and a figure leaning out the second-story window, a blanket draped out the windowsill. 

Photo by B. Merlis.

What Nellie Bly found on Blackwell’s Island

July 20, 2009

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864, journalist Nellie Bly (she adopted the pen name because at the time, women reporters didn’t use their real names) moved to New York in 1887.

Broke but brave, the 23-year-old convinced New York World editors to let her investigate conditions at the city lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. 

NellieblyBly feigned insanity and instantly got herself committed. She spent 10 days there before the World was able to get her released.

In a subsequent series of articles, she reported that the food was inedible, nurses often picked on and physically abused residents, and that many were sane but either couldn’t speak English or were left there by husbands who didn’t want them. And doctors couldn’t care less.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap,” she wrote. “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Bly later published her articles in a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. The asylum, with its famous (and still existent) circa-1830s octagon tower, was closed. Mentally ill New Yorkers were then sent to a new facility on nearby Ward’s Island. 

Bly became a sensation, embarking on an international career as a journalist. She died in 1922 and is buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. 

Old signs that feature old phone exchanges

July 20, 2009

Sutton Clock Shop, on Lexington and 61st Street, has been around for more than 60 years. Why install a more modern sign that features the numerical phone number when this old-school sign is so charming?

PL stood for Plaza, perhaps the Plaza Hotel on 59th and Fifth.


This hand-painted Michael Rizzo & Son sign points to a basement office on a brownstone on West 12th Street in the West Village. Wonder how they ended up with an OR exchange—for Orchard Street?


“Summer Electric Storm”

July 16, 2009

Painter and Greenwich Village resident Cecil Bell captures a moody lightning storm on a New York summer night in 1938.

It may have been painted from his own apartment at 19 East Ninth Street. Bell, who studied under John Sloan at the Art Students League, liked to work from his rooftop, according to biographical information provided by the Museum of the City of New York, which owns the painting.


The tall apartment building on the left dwarfing the Village’s tenements and churches is One Fifth Avenue, erected in 1929 at the foot of Washington Square Park.