Archive for July, 2011

An Iroquois Indian canoes in Central Park

July 28, 2011

It’s all a very culturally insensitive stunt from the 1920s, apparently. According to the caption on the back of this Getty Images photo, with the city skyline in view:

“Often romanticized, native people were hired to help promote New York events and locales. In 1927, amid much fanfare, So-Tsien-O-Wa-Ne (Chief Great Fire), a local Iroquois man, began patrolling Central Park’s lake in a canoe.”

A New York Times article from April 16 of that year has this to say:

“The Indian, an Iroquois, is to glide hither and thither around the three-mile stretch of water, preserve order, and lend local color. . . . He has lived for some years in Brooklyn, although born on a reservation in Montreal. On duty, Chief Great Fire will be attired in the usual buckskin clothes with plenty of feathers attached.”

It’s not the first time the city has officially sanctioned putting a human being more or less on display, as this story, of a man who lived for a short time in the Bronx Zoo, reveals.

Manhattan building ads fading before our eyes

July 28, 2011

We’re losing them—the white (and sometimes color) ads painted on the sides of buildings left over from an older, non-digital New York.

I can make out the “Sable Bros” part of this one, on 36th Street. But to figure out what the white letters fronting the blue background, I had to consult the wonderful 14 to 42 website, which photographed the ad when it was in better shape back in 2004.

This next one, in the 20s off Seventh Avenue, is too far gone to even try to research, except for what seems to be the word “paper” at top.

If anyone can figure it out, please send it in!

A creative commune in 1940s Brooklyn Heights

July 28, 2011

Brooklyn Heights has always attracted literary residents. Walt Whitman lived there in the 19th century, Hart Crane, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer in the 20th.

And from 1940 to 1941, one house at 7 Middagh Street became home to a rotating group of authors, poets, and artists whose stars were rising (or in a few cases, falling) at the time.

It all started in 1940, when George Davis, then the literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, rented the townhouse with his friend, 23-year-old Carson McCullers (top left).

McCullers had just published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She and Davis leased the house for $75 a month and let friends W.H. Auden (top right), Paul Bowles (below), British composer Benjamin Britten, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (bottom left) move in.

At “February House” (so named because many of the occupants had birthdays that month), Auden wrote The Double Man and McCullers worked on The Member of the Wedding.

But like most situations involving adults sharing living quarters, things didn’t work out. Residents moved out amid disorder and excessive drinking. The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was the final nail in the coffin, with only Davis remaining from the original group.

By 1945, 7 Middagh Street was history, razed to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Three ways New York used to cool off in summer

July 23, 2011

The city is no stranger to scorching temperatures; there’s the heat wave of 1911, the heat wave of 1899, and the heat wave of 1938, among others.

Imagine how oppressive it must have been a century ago, with no AC, no cool drinks from the fridge, and no skimpy summer attire.

But New Yorkers found ways to deal. One strategy: licking huge blocks of ice on a street corner with your pals, as these boys are doing in a July 1912 photo from the Bain News Service.

You could also find a shady spot in a park and just lie there in your jacket and shirtsleeves. This Bain News Service photo depicts men doing just that in Battery Park (no date).

And if you don’t have access to a swimming pool, why not jump in a fountain? Some boys attracted a crowd in Madison Square Park with that move in another Bain News Service shot (circa 1910-1915).

The city’s disappearing sidewalk fire alarms

July 23, 2011

These handsome pieces of street furniture—check out the Art Nouveau decorative touches as well as the torch on top—must have saved many lives in the pre-911 landline era.

Now they’re relics of a non-digital New York, one where all a resident had to do to report a fire was pull a tab or door, and a signal would be sent indicating the alarm’s location.

In the 1970s, some of these turn of the century alarms were fitted with fire and police tabs allowing for voice communication with a dispatcher.

In 1994, the Giuliani administration tried to disconnect them, arguing that 911 displaced the alarms. But critics insisted that deaf New Yorkers would have no way to report a blaze.

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg also suggested deactivating these mechanical alarms in favor of relying on cell phones and 911.

And before long, a once-ubiquitous sight on city sidewalks will become harder and harder to find. [Top: Seventh Avenue and 14th Street; right: Ninth Avenue and 26th Street]

A 1950s menu from New York favorite Schrafft’s

July 23, 2011

Until the 1970s, the city was dotted with Schrafft’s restaurants, a popular mini-chain in the tradition of Child’s and Chock Full o’Nuts that offered sandwiches and ice cream—mostly to female diners.

“Despite efforts to attract more men as customers with the addition of cocktail bars at many “stores” as they were known, Schrafft’s remained known primarily as a woman’s emporium,” states the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, published in 2007.

“Hot fudge sundaes, lobster Newberg, and creamed chicken on toast could be had in an atmosphere of middle-class gentility.”

This 1959 menu comes from the wonderful menu collection that’s part of the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Check out the offerings here—such as eggs scrambled in butter and crushed strawberry sundae.

Top photo: a Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, no longer there

The Lower East Side ghetto on market day

July 20, 2011

I don’t know exactly when this postcard was created or even what street it depicts. Rivington or Stanton are my guesses.

What’s remarkable is that the Lower East Side of the turn of the last century was commonly known as “The Ghetto”—a term that today sounds so loaded and inflammatory, though back then may have simply described the heavily Jewish part of any large American or European city.

The “Devil’s Stepping Stones” off City Island

July 20, 2011

New York is a city of islands: large ones like Manhattan, plus smaller scraps off Orchard Beach in the Bronx, such as City Island and Hart Island (New York’s potter’s field), as seen on the map below.

And then there are even tinier chunks of bedrock that aren’t usually named on maps: Rat Island, the Chimney Sweeps Islands, and High Island.

Today, these islands dotting easternmost Long Island Sound are mostly uninhabited bird rest stops.

Hundreds of years ago, however, they were known as the Devil’s Stepping Stones:

“According to fable, Indians were chasing the Devil across the sound, and every time he put his cloven hoof down, an island was formed,” reported a 1995 New York Times article.

Though it’s technically inside Long Island’s borders, the nearby Stepping Stones Lighthouse gets its name from this fascinating legend.

A street photographer’s working-class New York

July 20, 2011

“Whether he trained his camera on exuberant summer scenes on the beaches of Coney Island or the intimate corners of Mulberry Street during the San Gennaro festival, as here, Grossman was one of the greatest chroniclers of working-class life in New York during the late 1930s and 1940s,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Sid Grossman.

[Left: “Mulberry Street, 1948”]

While still a City College student, Grossman launched his career as a freelance photojournalist; he and fellow lensman Sol Libsohn cofounded the Photo League in 1936, teaching the craft as well as shooting street scenes in Chelsea and Harlem.

[Below: “Harlem Scene: 133rd Street Between Lenox and Fifth Avenues,” 1930s]

Grossman’s photos captured regular New Yorkers going about life in the 1930s, but by the 1940s, his photos often had a surreal quality, with subjects out of frame and staring back at the camera.

This made the viewer “an engaged participant in the scene rather than an aloof flâneur, rendering the experience of the picture not just an aesthetic dalliance, but a social activity as well.”

[above: “Two Young Women before a Pastry Shop at Night,” 1948]

Grossman might have continued shooting New York—but photos of labor union unrest he took in the 1930s led to an FBI investigation, which deemed the Photo League a Communist front.

The league was blacklisted; Grossman died in 1955.

A face looks out over West 15th Street

July 18, 2011

This head topped off with a winged helmet—is he a soldier? A nobleman?—is carved into the sixth floor facade of a Chelsea tenement off Eighth Avenue.

His face, as well as the flowers and fruit and other decorative elements, give this drab building on a not-so-remarkable block a bit of enchantment.