Archive for April, 2011

When rock album covers featured New York City

April 30, 2011

Remember album art—and hey, remember albums?

Back in the rock LP’s heyday, images of the city made it on many a front and back cover.

The New York locations for the cover art on The Doors’ Strange Days and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan have gotten plenty of exposure.

But some cover shots and images deserves a second look.

Simon and Garfunkel’s first album was shot in the 53rd Street subway station. (Vintage trash can at left.)

When it came out in 1964 on the heels of Beatlemania, it bombed . . . then became a hit after a re-release two years later.

Art Garfunkel has said that they took hundreds of shots on the platform before finally getting the right one.

Gem Spa is still on the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, as it was when the New York Dolls posed there for the back of their 1973 first LP.

Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic cover was photographed in 1974 just inside Central Park off of Fifth Avenue.

That’s a real pretzel vendor working a snowy city day there, selling his “pretzles” at bargain-basement prices.

Future New York: “The City of Skyscrapers”

April 27, 2011

Some predictions about what life in a future New York will be like actually come to pass—while others never make it out of the fantasy stage.

In the fantasy category are the Hudson River bridges proposed in the 1880s and then the 1950s for 23rd Street and 125th Street.

The moving sidewalks dreamed up in 1871 and then again in 1910 also never came to fruition.

But this Walker Evans postcard, from the 1910s, accurately predicted that New York would be a city of skyscrapers.

The trams traveling along interconnected tracks through buildings and the airplanes crowding low in the skies just didn’t pan out, at least not yet.

The most infamous sex club of the 1970s

April 27, 2011

Lots of legendary New York clubs were born in 1970s: CBGB on the Bowery, Studio 54 west of midtown, Paradise Garage on King Street.

But lets not forget Plato’s Retreat, the notorious swingers’ club that epitomized the free-sex atmosphere of pre-AIDS New York.

Opened in 1977, Plato’s Retreat held court in the basement of the then-crumbling Beaux Arts Ansonia Hotel on Broadway and West 74th Street.

Management laid out strict rules: No gay men, couples only (though women could have sex with each other), no drugs, no booze.

Celebrities indulged in orgies with regular joes and janes from the suburbs. A “mat room” was for exhibitionist sex. Clothes were optional. Guests could bump uglies in the disco, the Jacuzzi, and the huge swimming pool.

Of course, it wouldn’t last long. In 1980, Plato’s Retreat moved out of the Ansonia to a much bigger space at 509 West 34th Street. Owner Larry Levenson went to prison for tax evasion in 1981.

And then AIDS hit the city. Mayor Koch ordered the health department to shut down gay bathhouses as well as straight sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat. By 1985, it was over.

Is this the oldest sign in a city subway station?

April 27, 2011

This torn, faded anti-littering poster is still adhered to a beam between the F and G tracks at the Seventh Avenue station in Park Slope.

“Litter Is a Hazard Here” it reads, an arrow pointing to the tracks. Apparently, riders decades ago were just as likely to toss trash on the tracks as riders are today.

The sign is part of a series of “Subway Sun” messages first launched by the IRT in the teens, according to this Princeton University Library blog, which also provides a little backstory and images of other Subway Sun posters.

So how old is the Park Slope sign? I’m guessing it dates to the 1940s, and it just might be older than these vintage signs found in another Brooklyn F station that warn riders not to spit or lean over toward the tracks.

Saul Leiter’s haunting street photographs

April 25, 2011

New York has never had a shortage of photographers chronicling the city’s moods and moments.

But Saul Leiter’s 1940s and 1950s color photos are something else, even among his New York School contemporaries.

Born in 1923, Leiter came to New York from Pittsburgh. With no training, he made a living shooting fashion magazine spreads.

On his own, he walked the streets with his camera—often an expired roll of color film inside, which created pictures with muted colors.

He captured fluid fragments of otherwise unremarkable city life that make haunting, unsentimental images.

[At left, “Yellow Scarf,” 1956; above, “Frank’s Pizza,” 1952]

In a 2009 interview with Photographers Speak, Leiter responded to a comment about his work representing the alienation of the city with this:

“I never thought of the urban environment as isolating. I leave these speculations to others.

“It is quite possible that my work represents a search for beauty in the most prosaic and ordinary places.

“One doesn’t have to be in some faraway dreamland in order to find beauty. I realize that the search for beauty is not highly popular these days. Agony, misery, and wretchedness, now these are worth pursuing.”

[above: “Postmen,” 1952]

The chariot race sign in a young Herald Square

April 24, 2011

This enchanting postcard features a moonlit Herald Square looking up Broadway, with the elevated tracks and tall office buildings and stores glowing from within.

And then there’s an image of a Roman Chariot race in the background, all lit up majestically in the night.

A gigantic display of light that went up in 1910, it was used by a variety of advertisers over the years, according to the American Sign Museum:

“In 1910, the great chariot race sign in New York City was one of the most famous electrical displays in the world. Erected on the roof of a seven-story building overlooking Herald Square, it featured a Roman chariot race and the sign was composed of 20,000 bulbs of different colors, 70,000 connections and 2,750 switches.

“The simulated movement of horses, drivers and whips was accomplished by 2,500 flashes per minute and the sign attracted crowds every night for years. The erection of an intervening building ended its period of use by a series of advertisers.”

Dorothy Day: the “paradoxical saint” of New York

April 24, 2011

Anarchist, pacifist, and committed Catholic Dorothy Day is in the process of being canonized for sainthood.

She’s not the first New Yorker to become a saint or be in line for the designation, but she may be the least likely candidate.

Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day spent her early adult years as a Marxist journalist and agnostic, anti-war, pro-suffrage activist.

She lived lived on the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, in common-law arrangements with men, and had an abortion.

Then in the 1920s, after her daughter was born, she experienced a spiritual awakening. Day started going to mass daily, studied scripture, and embarked on an ascetic life.

And she founded the Catholic Worker movement: a newspaper with a socialist, pacifist slant that included a larger dedication to serving the poor.

Day did this by opening “houses of hospitality” in poor areas of the city that provided food, clothing, and shelter for the down and out.

Day herself lived in one, a group of cabins in Staten Island, the borough where she died in 1980 and is now buried in.

She never gave up her commitment to peace and improving the lives of the poor, which earned her accolades on the left.

But she also condemned abortion and birth control, which won her praise from conservative Catholics.

“Afternoon by the sea at Gravesend Bay”

April 20, 2011

Cape Cod? Chesapeake Bay? England? France? It’s actually Gravesend, the town settled by British Quakers in Southern Brooklyn, as depicted in 1888 by painter William Merritt Chase.

Lovely and peaceful, isn’t it? I have no clue what block in today’s Gravesend this location would correspond to. But Gravesend Bay extends into lower New York Bay, and that’s either Staten Island or New Jersey in the distance.

A city anti-Nazi group’s bold matchbook ad

April 20, 2011

In 1933, after Hitler came to power in Germany, an organization that would eventually be called the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights was formed.

The West 47th Street–based group’s goal: to convince Americans of all backgrounds to join in a total boycott of Germany.

This powerful matchbook cover advertisement plainly makes the case.

Throughout the 1930s, the boycott movement gathered steam, according to

“In January 1939 dissolution of the B’nai B’rith in Germany moved its American counterpart to join the boycott movement,” states one entry.

“However, the American Jewish Committee remained unalterably opposed to the movement throughout the Nazi era.

“In the United States, a non-belligerent until Pearl Harbor, the boycott was continued until 1941.”

Inside of the matchbook, it reads: “Help End the Nazi Dictatorship by becoming a member of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League.”

I have no idea how many people did.

Manhattan’s two worst blocks in the 1960s

April 20, 2011

Over the years, I’m sure countless New York streets have been worthy of this title.

But in the 1960s, two stretches of Manhattan held the crown.

In 1962, journalists gave it to East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues.

Called “absolutely rock-bottom” by a city official in The New York Times that year, East 100th Street was further summed up as “overcrowded, notably unsanitary, ridden with crime and narcotics addiction, it is a microcosm of the worst conditions and worst elements of the city.”

A 1968 New York feature reported that residents held a funeral march for the tenements on the block, “so neglected they were virtually uninhabitable.”

Photographer Bruce Davidson shot a series of black and white photos on East 100th Street chronicling the stark poverty (at right, from 1966).

Today, some tenements appear to have been razed, but a row remains, as you can see on Google.

West 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam may be a little bit shabby by current standards—but it’s a pretty decent Upper West Side block.

Not so in 1961, when the Times awarded it “worst block” status after a 400-resident riot one summer grabbed the city’s attention.

The Times described West 84th as “the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts, and sexual perverts.”

The city’s solution: raze tenements and move residents to new housing projects.

John Podhoretz, who grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1960s, remembers West 84th and recounts the city’s efforts to clean it up here.