Archive for August, 2011

The 23rd Street “shopping district” by night

August 29, 2011

Judging by where the Flatiron Building is on the left of this vintage postcard, this looks like 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

On this block, venerable department stores like Stern’s have been replaced by Home Depot and a shoe store named . . . Shoegasm.

East 13th Street’s most famous downed tree

August 29, 2011

Some of the toppled trees caused by so-called Hurricane Irene are impressive. But none will be missed as much as the pear tree that stood on an East Village corner for more than 200 years—before being felled by a winter storm and then an out-of-control wagon.

The story begins in the middle of the 17th century. That’s when New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant went back to his native Holland, returning to the city with a flowering pear tree.

Stuyvesant planted the tree on his Bouwerie, or farm, “as his memorial, ‘by which,’ said he, ‘my name may be remembered,” a nearby plaque reads.

As the tree grew, so did New York. Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street sprouted around it, and the tree remained on that corner until February 1867 (above photo, from the NYPL).

“After a massive winter storm, which had weakened the tree, two drays (low flat carts without sides or with very low sides, used for heavy loads, especially by brewers) collided, one of which was thrown against the tree with sufficient force to send the 200-year-old veteran to the equivalent of its knees,” reports a Villager article from 2005.

“With its demise went one of old New York’s popular sightseeing attractions and perhaps the last living vestige of the Dutch presence in the city.”

“The tree was taken down, but a Stuyvesant descendant gave a cross-section of its trunk to The New-York Historical Society, where it is enclosed in a glass case on the fourth floor.”

Here’s Third Avenue and 13th Street today.

A New York mayor’s bizarre kidnapping plot

August 29, 2011

In Colonial New York, mayors were appointed, not elected, which helps explain why corrupt loyalist David Matthews was running the city in 1776.

How corrupt? He was in on a notorious plot to kidnap and assassinate George Washington.

This crazy idea naturally came about in a tavern, a place called Corbie’s, near Washington’s residence. All those involved were sworn to secrecy.

But someone squealed, and at 1 a.m. on June 22, 1776, Patriot troops surrounded Matthews’ Flatbush home and brought him to jail.

Though the plot was real (one of Washington’s guards was hanged for it, and New York governor William Tryon was involved), there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Matthews—who resumed his mayoral duties until 1783.

After the war, Matthews apparently confessed. “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected,” he told a royal commission in London.

Interestingly, this didn’t stop him from getting his name on a Bronx park: Matthews Muliner Playground. Even the Parks Department identifies him as a thief, kidnap plotter, and embezzler.

[Right: New York in 1776, from the NYPL]

Manhole covers: clues to an older New York

August 26, 2011

There’s a lot more variety when it comes to manhole typeface and design than you’d think. And each cover offers a tiny clue to the businesses that made the modern city.

The Weinstock Brothers started out as steel fabricators in 1898. This Gramercy-area manhole is a testament to their work.

It’s still plugging up the street—and the company is also going strong.

The Flatbush Gas Company must have put this manhole cover down in the area known today as Victorian Flatbush around 1900, when farmland south of Prospect Park was suburbanized.

Hmm, it looks a lot like this Brooklyn Edison cover found in Crown Heights.

It’s clear that this lovely spoke-wheel cover found in Manhattan says “DPW [Department of Public Works] Sewer.”

But the year is hard to decipher. Could it really be from 1871?

Though the newest manhole covers on New York streets mostly appear to have “made in India” engraved on them, the city still creates some fun and fanciful decorative ones.

Check out this one on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, with a cute porgy on it.

A pretty girl’s mysterious morphine overdose

August 26, 2011

In January 1891, Helen Potts was a brunette beauty at the Comstock School, an elite finishing school at 32 West 40th Street.

One night, the 19-year-old complained of a headache. She took a quinine pill a medical student had prescribed for her. Within hours, after waking momentarily and telling classmates she was having fantastic dreams, she was dead.

Reporters, captivated by the mysterious death of a wealthy good girl, began digging around. What they found dominated newspaper headlines for years.

Turns out that Helen and the med student, Carlyle W. Harris, had secretly wed a year earlier.

Harris must have regretted it, because he rather quickly stopped seeing Helen—who soon told him she was pregnant.

After an abortion (or “operation,” as The New York Times put it in this article), Helen enrolled at the Comstock School. The following January, her life was over.

In 1892, Harris was hauled into court. Prosecutors insisted that he put a lethal dose of morphine in Helen’s quinine pill so he could be free of her.

After a three-week sensational trial, which hinged on whether Helen’s body showed signs of an opium overdose, Harris was convicted of murder.

He was electrocuted at Sing Sing in May 1893, insistent that he was innocent.

The hippest hangout in the 1960s East Village

August 24, 2011

You know how everyone always complains that a once-cool bar or club has been ruined because it’s been discovered by bridge-and-tunnel types?

The same gripes were repeated in the mid-1960s about the Dom (above, in 1966, photo by Fred W. McDarrah).

Occupying the former Polish National Home at 19-25 St. Marks Place, it was once the burgeoning East Village’s hippest nightspot—run by Stanley Tolkin, proprieter of Beat hangout Stanley’s bar on Avenue B and 12th Street.

When exactly it opened depends on what book or article you read, but it seems to have hit maximum hipness in the mid-1960s. The Dom apparently wasn’t one space but an upstairs dance club/performance art area plus a downstairs bar/restaurant.

But by the time this grumbling review came out in 1965’s The Inside Guide to Greenwich Village, the place was over, invaded by “another element.”

The Dom disappeared sometime in 1967, when the space became the Balloon Farm, then the Electric Circus, next a community center/rehab facility, and over the years a succession of other short-lived bars and cafes.

Old-school signs for old New York drugstores

August 24, 2011

Amid the Duane Reade-ization of the city, it’s nice to stumble across the kind of independent corner drugstore that was probably named after the pharmacist who originally opened it.

Enjoy their vintage signs while you can, before the pharmacies they’re affixed to morph into Walgreens or Rite-Aids.

Lascoff’s, on 82nd and Lexington, has spanned three centuries. Visit it if only to check out the old-world decor and apothecary equipment.

Isn’t Harold’s for Prescriptions a wonderful name? The store, in Gravesend, also sports a cool 1960s neon sign. This Flickr photo captured it all lit up at night.

I don’t know how long Mittman’s has been in the drug business, but judging by that very stylized sign, it seems that they survived the bad old days on Havemeyer Street and South Third in Williamsburg.

Before there was an Empire State Building . . .

August 22, 2011

There was just the plain-old Empire Building, an 1898 neoclassical office tower at 71 Broadway at Rector Street.

Impressive enough to warrant is own postcard, it held the distinction of being one of the city’s first steel-framed skyscrapers and was praised for its ornate beauty.

[One critic, however, did complain that it had a “grotesque resemblance to a waffle iron” according to this 1996 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.]

For 33 years, it was the only skyscraper with Empire in its name. Then in 1931 came the Empire State Building—82 stories taller and an instant icon.

The humbled Empire Building stuck it out until 1997, when it was converted to apartments.

Elliott Erwitt’s strange and sublime city photos

August 22, 2011

Paris-born photographer and filmmaker Elliott Erwitt has captured scenes all over the world.

But his New York photos, dating from the 1940s to the 2000s, come off as especially poetic, showcasing the pathos and isolation inherent in modern city life.

[A boy rides the Third Avenue El in this 1955 shot]

They’re also witty, bringing the viewer in on the joke with a focus on the weird and ridiculous—like the two grown men duking it out under an el platform in 1950, or the dog and masked owner on a stoop in 2000.

Here’s what a New York Times reviewer had to say back in May, when a retrospective of Erwitt’s work opened at the International Center of Photography.

“Mr. Erwitt has been a seeker of the ‘decisive moment,’ an instant in real time when people, animals or objects appear before the camera in surprising and illuminating ways. What distinguishes Mr. Erwitt’s work has been his keen eye for the comedy in everyday life.”

The escapee jackrabbits of JFK airport

August 22, 2011

Next time you’re on a plane taxiing around John F. Kennedy International Airport, look out for one of the estimated 50-100 black-tailed jackrabbits who make their home in the flatlands beside the runways.

Like pigeons and sparrows, they’re not native New Yorkers. They’re the progeny of fugitive rabbits native to the U.S. West from a shipment that arrived at JFK about 50 years ago.

A crate of these two-foot rabbits “was supposed to be shipped to a game farm, where the rabbits would be stalked by hunters,” states Wild New York, by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson.

“Instead, the jackrabbits broke loose and discovered that the grassy areas alongside the runways were similar to their native desert flatlands.”

“The escaped jackrabbits and their descendants have been living at JFK ever since—and new litters of baby jackrabbits are born at the airport every spring.”

Life at JFK isn’t easy for these guys. Between 2000 and 2008, about 39 jackrabbits met their maker after colliding with planes, according to this New York Post article.

[photo copyright BK atzung]