Archive for September, 2009

Hunger and hopelessness on the Bowery

September 30, 2009

If New York had to nominate one street as its most rock-bottom skid row ever, it would probably have to be the Bowery. Not the Bowery of 2009, of course, with its influx of luxe hotels and boutiques.

bowerybreadline.jpgI’m thinking of the Bowery of 1909, where down-on-their-luck men stood on bread lines and passed time in 15-cent hotel rooms, as these Library of Congress photos show.

If a man found himself on the Bowery, that was pretty much it for him. He’d sunk as low as you could go, and things weren’t going to get better.

Theodore Dreiser understood this when he wrote Sister Carrie. It’s an underrated turn-of-the-century New York novel chronicling the rise of a young, ambitious actress (kind of a Carrie Bradshaw of the 1890s) juxtaposed with the fall of her older common-law husband. 

Sister Carrie ends with the husband, the unemployed, weakened, and abandoned Hurstwood, committing suicide in a Bowery flophouse:

Boweryflophouse“Hurstwood laid down his fifteen cents and crept of with weary steps to his allotted room. It was a dingy affair—wooden, dusty, hard. A small gas-jet furnished sufficient light for so rueful a corner.

“‘Hm!’ He said, clearing his throat and locking the door.

“Now he began leisurely to take off his clothes, but stopped first with his coat, and tucked it along the crack under the door. His vest he arranged in the same place. His old wet, cracked hat he laid softly upon the table. Then he pulled off his shoes and laid down.

“It seemed as if he thought for a while, for now he arose and turned the gas out, standing calmly in the blackness, hidden from view. After a few moments, in which he reviewed nothing, but merely hesitated, he turned the gas on again, but applied no match. Even then he stood there, hidden wholly in that kindness which is night, while the uprising fumes filled the room. When the odour reached his nostrils, he quit his attitude and fumbled for the bed.

“‘What’s the use?’ he said, weakly, as he stretched himself to rest.”

The wrought-iron flowers on the Chelsea Hotel

September 30, 2009

The Chelsea Hotel’s aesthetic appeal is pretty obvious: This 1883 structure—originally one of the city’s first apartment houses—has gothic-Victorian turrets, short corinthian columns, and a deep red brick facade.

It’s all the more striking considering how unremarkable the rest of the stretch of 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues is.


But have you ever really noticed the balconies, with their wrought-iron flowers, stems, and leaves all woven together? They’re really lovely, and easy to miss amid the hotel’s other beautiful design touches.

Greenwich Village’s legendary Grapevine Tavern

September 30, 2009

Back in the early to mid-19th century, when the Village really was a country village north of the main city, this quaint clapboard house became a tavern known as the Old Grapevine. 

Located on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, it’s probably the first legendary Village bar. The Old Grapevine attracted artists, businessmen, Union officers, Southern spies, and politicians, who dropped by after visiting Jefferson Market Courthouse two blocks south.


It was such a gathering spot that the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” originated there. (Yep, a grapevine used to cover the 11th Street side of the tavern.)

Its closing in 1915 merited the kind of nostalgic media coverage given to CBGB or the Cedar Tavern when they shut their doors:


“It was not only a place to warm the inner man with the fermented juice of the grape, malted beers, and fine musty ale, but a place where good fellows met, as in the more palatial clubs today, to match their wits, tell the latest story, and discuss in a friendly way the political destinies of the nation,” wrote The New York Times

Speaking of warming the inner man, one ex-owner was proud that he didn’t serve women.

“Never in my career have a sold a drink to a woman,” the Times quoted him. “No women were allowed in the place. It was no hang-out for roisterers. . . . From the day I went there in 1870 [it] was a gentleman’s cafe.”

Protecting the horses that did the city’s work

September 26, 2009

Before cars, subways, and trucks took over transporting residents and objects around the city, the job was the responsibility of horses. And of course, not everyone treated those horses humanely.

Spending their days pulling streetcars and wagons, horses were routinely beaten by drivers, and they often were literally worked to death.


This prompted wealthy resident Henry Bergh to found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. With Bergh at the helm, the ASPCA helped write anti-cruelty laws and built public water troughs for horses (at least one of which still exists near Sixth Avenue and 59th Street).

They also created the first horse ambulance, as seen in the photo above. 

Today the ASPCA is a national animal welfare organization that operates a shelter on 92nd Street where four-legged New Yorkers can be adopted.

Another adoption option: New York City Animal Care & Control, which operates three shelters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. NYCACC doesn’t have the funds and history of the ASPCA, but they too have lots of sweet, loving dogs and cats looking for new homes.

The many names given to Roosevelt Island

September 26, 2009

Has any borough, neighborhood, or stretch of land in New York City been renamed as many times as Roosevelt Island has over its 400-year history?

Called Minnahanock by the Canarsie Indians, tribal leaders sold the he two-mile long island to Dutch governor Wouter van Twiller in 1637. Now part of New Amsterdam, it was renamed Varcken (Hog) Island for the pigs the Dutch raised there.


[The island formerly known as Welfare, in a 1940s postcard.]

In 1666, with the English now in control, the island fell into the hands of Captain John Manning and was renamed Manning’s Island. Twenty years later Manning’s son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, inherited the island. He decided it was now Blackwell’s Island.

The city of New York bought the island in 1828 for $32,500, building hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons on what was formerly farmland. The Blackwell name officially endured until 1921, when it got another moniker: Welfare Island.

Finally, in 1973, with plans to turn the island into a mostly residential neighborhood, the city renamed it Roosevelt Island. Lets hope this one lasts!

Peeling back layers of downtown store signs

September 26, 2009

When a shop goes out of business, there’s a short yet sweet window of time during which the defunct store’s sign is down . . . and the ghost sign from a long-ago shop becomes visible. For a few days to a few weeks, you get this tiny glimpse into the city’s recent past.

Like Reisman’s Ladieswear at 226 East 14th Street. Not too many signs advertise “cut rate” clothing anymore:


Lafayette French Pastry, on Bleecker Street in the West Village, looks like it was a charming place to get a chocolate eclair in the 1960s. They moved over to Greenwich Avenue and West 10th several years ago:


I wonder what Richman, at 300 Canal Street, sold:


If the sign advertised a product or service, we’ll never know; it’s hidden behind a red blotch.

A Queens housewife gets the electric chair

September 23, 2009

Ruth Snyder was not the first woman to be put to death by New York state. But she’s perhaps the most famous. Tried in 1927 at the Long Island City courthouse for killing her husband, her case was a media sensation—and her execution caught on camera and published in the Daily News.

RuthsnyderelecticchairFor two years, Ruth, a 32-year-old housewife in Queens Village, had been having an affair with a corset salesman named Judd Gray. The two soon began plotting the murder of Ruth’s husband, Albert.

On March 20, 1927, Albert was killed in a staged home-robbery-gone-wrong scenario: he was beaten, smothered with a chloroform-soaked pillow, and stranged with wire. 

Police quickly realized the home-robbery scenario didn’t add up and arrested Ruth and Judd, who confessed. On trial, each blamed the other for the murder. The jury believed them both and handed down two first-degree murder verdicts. 

Ruth and Judd were put to death in Sing Sing on January 12, 1928. Ruth went first. Just as the executioner delivered the fatal volts, a Chicago Tribune reporter snapped a photo of Ruth with a camera surreptitiously attached to his ankle. The shocking image ran in the next day’s Daily News.

About the case itself, it was the basis for the 1935 novel Double Indemnity, later made into a movie starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

Riverside Drive’s Hendrik Hudson apartments

September 23, 2009

From a publication called The World’s New York Apartment House Album comes this sketch and description of a beautiful turn-of-the-century residential building, the Hendrik Hudson.

Spanning the entire block between Riverside Drive and Broadway at 110th Street, the Hendrik Hudson must have been a striking sight when it was completed in 1907. The facade was modeled after an Italian villa and the roof made from Spanish tile, topped by two imposing towers.


As ambitious as the facade was, the 7- to 9-room apartments were also innovative, explains Andrew Alpern’s Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan:

“Walnut paneling, wood-beamed ceilings, mahogany doors with glass knobs, and the latest designs in porcelain bathroom fittings were all used to attract tenants,” writes Alpern. “Also offered was a billiard parlor, a cafe, a barber shop, and a ladies hairdressing salon—all for the exclusive use of the building’s occupants and guests. Rents ranged from $1500 t0 $3000 per year.”

As Morningside Heights became kind of sketchy in the post World War II years, so did the Hendrik Hudson; at some point, one of its towers disappeared. The building went co-op in 1970. It looks like an terrific place to live today.

The girl who loved Central Park’s pretty horses

September 23, 2009

Near the Central Park carousel is a child-size wood post featuring carvings of merry-go-round horses. They look like miniature versions of the hand-carved, painted horses on the circa-1908 carousel itself.


It’s an enchanting little post, a marker letting adults know that they’re about to enter the park’s kid territory.

MichellebernsteinBut near the bottom of the post is this somber plaque:

Michelle Bernstein
March 25, 1984 – June 19, 1987
The Carousel Landscape
was restored in 1991
in honour of Michelle
who loved
all the pretty little horses

1970s Eighth Avenue: the “Minnesota Strip”

September 21, 2009

“Minnesota Strip” could describe Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 50th Streets today, with so many midwestern-looking tourists ambling between hotels like the Milford Plaza and nearby Broadway theaters.

TimessquarehookersBut the nickname has a seedier origin. It was coined by cops in the 1970s because a huge proportion of the prostitutes who worked that stretch of Eighth Avenue were teenage runaways from Minnesota.

A November 28, 1977 Time article reported this:

“The most sensational special link the committee found was the ‘Minneapolis Connection,’ in which young girls from that city, itself a magnet for runaways from much of the upper Midwest, move into New York in such large numbers that a section of Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue has long been known as the ‘Minnesota Strip.’

“Minneapolis police claim that up to 400 juveniles a year from the area are lost to other cities, with most of the youths winding up in prostitution in New York.”