When Lower Manhattan had a “Radio Row”

The Garment District, Flower District, Swing Street—the city has always been chopped into specialty areas.

And in the 1920s with the rise of broadcast radio, Cortlandt and Dey Streets were home to Manhattan’s radio district, aka Radio Row.

The row was more than that; dozens of shops lined local streets.

“Cortlandt once ran from the Hudson River up to Broadway, but now only one block—from Trinity Place to Broadway—remains,” wrote The New York Times in 1981.

“The rest, displaced by the World Trade Center, was a rabbit warren of electrical shops with books on radios stacked up on sidewalks and piles of tubes, condensers, old radios and old radio cabinets set alongside.”

Radio Row adapted to changing times in the 1950s. Stores that sold televisions and hi-fis moved in alongside the radio shops.

Its demise had little to do with the fall of radio and instead can be blamed on the World Trade Center.

In 1961, politicians called for the use of eminent domain to raze Radio Row’s small blocks so the Twin Towers could be built.

Radio Row’s store owners tried fighting it out in court. They lost, getting just $3,000 each from the state to go elsewhere.

[Top photo: Radio Row in the 1960s, copyright Antique Broadcast Classified. Right: a crowd gathers on November 22, 1963, after JFK is assassinated in this Library of Congress photo]

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14 Responses to “When Lower Manhattan had a “Radio Row””

  1. Alex Says:

    Like many other eminent domain situations, this was an abuse of political influence to build skyscrapers in place of a thriving middle class merchants community with minimal political influence. The fact that they only received $3,000 was a travesty. We still see it happening today with the likes of Donald Trump getting zoning exceptions for most of his projects. Radio Row was before my time, it would have been great to experience it.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I definitely agree. It’s pretty shocking that politicians and developers can basically seize a small neighborhood in the name of slum clearance or business development. And then consider how the World Trade Center lacked tenants in its early years.

  3. Paul Says:

    Radio Row was my 2nd home as a young teenager. After those stores were razed to build the WTC and we watched the towers ries, some businesses relocated to the area around Vesey from Park Place to Duane St, and some further north to Canal St. Over the years, real estate values or changing times closed almost all of those businesses, and when the towers fell, I experienced the loss all over again.

    The loss of all of Manhattan’s “districts” has made NYC a much less special place.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    And the loss happens so quickly. The Meatpacking District went from meatpacking to Stella McCartney et al in less than a decade.

  5. T.J. Connick Says:

    Now unfortunately forgotten, but one of the Radio Row businesses dug in his heels and refused to budge. He landed a knockout punch on the undefeated, untied heavyweight champion of the world, and warmed to the story of that glorious moment at every opportunity.

    Daniel Pehr ran his locksmith business from a small space made for him in the lobby of 5 World Trade Center. He cut keys and performed the many services typical of a small, independent operator, but he liked nothing more than to draw a new customer’s attention to the yellowing newspaper clippings that recorded his unlikely victory.

    How New York managed to forget the man and his triumph is beyond me. Pehr was a great character, a real treasure, and Iiving proof that the little guy sometimes wins. I understand that his son continues the business in Floral Park.

  6. Penelope Says:

    WOW! I love that artwork (first item), it just epitomizes New York summer nights.

  7. Penelope Says:

    oops- just noticed that I commented on the wrong post…

  8. RED DAVE Says:

    I remember Radio Row well. My Dad, a collector of old tools, scientific instruments, gadgets, etc., used to haunt the area. One of the stores I remember was Leed’s Radio. One day, Dad and I dove there, in our 1951 Plymouth station wagon, to pick up a glass dome from a weather plane. They had several on hand. We still have it. My wife and I used it as a wishing well during our wedding.

  9. Patricia Kidd Says:

    My favorite childhood memories were from going into ‘the city’ with my Grandmother ,Victoria Schneider to her business- J.P.McWalter’s was a sign company at 54 Dey Street. I remember going to the coffee shops to get coffee and donuts for the wonderful men who worked for her. I remember the incredible smells and noises of the city. I remember the ‘elevator man’ who I knew was one of the most important and nicest people in NYC.
    I also remember how devastated she was when she had to move her business. I was quite young and didn’t understand the impact of having to move a business, much less to Fulton Street. I still remember how disappointing it was that there was no longer an ‘elevator man’ in a wonderful suit and hat and an ever present smile in that new office building. It was neat to press the buttons myself but I sure missed my old friend.
    New York City’s Radio Row will always be an important part of the best memories of my life.


      Hi Patti, I found this article on-line and was so delighted and surprised!! This is Sean Rowse Munro . Pat and Herb’s youngest son. I have wonderful memories of going to my Dad’s business as a kid in the city as well. I would love to know more about the relationship between Aunt Vickie and JP McWalters… my email is seanrowse@gmail.com. If you receive this note, please reach out! Would love to hear from you.

  10. Robert Benedict Says:

    I worked on Dey St and Church St in the late 1950’s as a technical illustrator and was going to engineering school in NJ at night. But during lunchhours, I crawled the Radio Row area, finding all kinds of goodies. What a place – what a time! I left that area to go to Bell Tel. Labs in Jersey, but I look back with deep nostalgia. Both places that I worked in NYC, as well as the train station I used going back and forth to Newark, were within the footprint of the World Trade Center. (Does anyone out there remember Renwar Inc. on Dey St?) Oh, today is Sept. 11, 2011.

  11. saul victor Says:

    I didn’t know all of this material existed. I worked for Arrow Electronics from 1946 to arund 1952. It was owned by MauriceGoldberg and it was a family enterprise (me included) Henry, Arthur, Arthur Goodman (a brother in law) and my brother Murray Victor all worked thdere.When we worked late we went to Exchange Buffet (Eat em and Beat em)-since they had an honor system for payment.I remember too uch more to spell out here.
    (ckleaning surplus radio tubes and re-selling them as used.etc.

  12. A close-up look down Cortlandt Street in 1908 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Cortlandt Street at this time had not yet earned its wonderful nickname, “Radio Row.” […]

  13. Patricia Kidd Says:

    My much beloved Grandmother – Victoria Howe’s Schneider owned JP McWalter in NYC @ 54 Dey St. she bought it/ acquired after the owner either sold it to her or maybe he had passed away. I was a rather young kid then so don’t remember. I do remember the fun going into the ‘The City’ with her and my ‘Pop’-grandfather- who dropped us off at the awesome subway. He’d drive to the other side of the city.
    We lived on Long Island back then. Most of the absolute happiest days of my childhood were always with my grandmother/aka ‘Bona’. I’d safely walk to nearby Choc-full-of Nuts to pick up coffee for her wonderful employees-all sweet kind hardworking men. (I felt so important!) My ‘Bona’ is still the woman I miss the most in my life. Her name ‘Bona’ -meaning ‘good’ came about as mom was 16 when I was born. Bona was a perfect name for my so very much beloved Grandmother.

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