Archive for September, 2011

A goofy 1970s Greenwich Village class photo

September 29, 2011

It’s about that time of year for the annual school ritual known as picture day.

In 1976, these adorable second graders from P.S. 41 on West 11th Street posed as a class. (This is before class size was an issue in schools, of course—there are 35 kids in that photo!).

Colored tights, prairie skirts and dresses, bowl cuts, and Michael Jackson iron-on shirts were all the rage among mid-1970s downtown kids—or at least their parents, who went to local discount stores like Mays for their offspring’s stylin’ wardrobes.

Get a kick out of city class photos from the 1970s and 1913 here.

A rag-picker’s harsh life on Mulberry Street

September 29, 2011

Rag-picker: It’s a job title that ceased to exist in New York after the turn of the 20th century.

But it used to be a career choice of sort for poor residents, who eked out a living sorting through refuse on city streets.

Cloth, paper, glass—they’d resell whatever they found to recyclers.

So many (typically Italian) rag-pickers lived in Lower Manhattan that one Mulberry Street nook was called Rag-Picker’s Court.

It’s unclear exactly where the court was, but this 1881 New York Times article mentions several Mulberry Street addresses.

“A cellar in the front house opens to the street, and peering down one sees a score of men and women half buried in piles of dirty rags and paper which they are sorting and packing for the mill,” explains America Revisited, published in 1882, about Rag-Picker’s Court.

“Lines in the yard are strung with them. . . . Some have been drawn through the wash-tub to get rid of the worst of the dirt, but for the most part they are hung up just as they are taken from the bags, and left for the rain to cleanse and the sun to bleach them.”

[Above illustration of Rag-Picker’s Court from 1871; photo by Alice Austen, rag-pickers in 1896]

The five real-women statues in all of New York

September 29, 2011

Call it a statue gender imbalance: Out of the 150 or so historical statues in all five boroughs, only five depict real women.

They’re an eclectic bunch. Joan of Arc has been on her stallion in Riverside Park (at right) since 1915; Golda Meir went up at Broadway and 39th Street in 1984.

Gertrude Stein was immortalized in bronze in Bryant Park in 1992 (below). A pensive Eleanor Roosevelt has stood tall in Riverside Park since 1996.

And in 2008, Harriet Tubman was unveiled at 122nd Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard.

Of course, it makes sense that there’s a male-female statue ratio. Right or wrong, history tends to remember and honor individual men over women.

And most of these monuments were planned and dedicated decades, even a century ago.

It’s not like casts of the female form barely exist in New York. Thing is, they’re typically fictional characters (like Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland in Central Park) or symbolic figures (such as the most famous of all, Lady Liberty).

Here’s the tragic story of one beautiful turn-of-the-century New York girl who posed for dozens of symbolic statues.

Three different views of Lower Fifth Avenue

September 26, 2011

“Crossing Fifth Avenue at 22nd Street is a finely turned-out brougham carriage with a well-dressed driver and sleek horses,” states the caption to this 1889 photo, from New York Then and Now.

It’s a Gilded Age street: lovely cast-iron lamp posts, a towering tree on the west side of the street, and Victorian-era window shades for an air condition-less city.

Things would change drastically for this part of Lower Fifth, as the 1975 photo, also from New York Then and Now, reveals.

The New York Jockey Club building was bulldozed in 1900, replaced by the Flatiron Building. The Fifth Avenue Hotel on the left corner at 23rd Street is now a 14-story office building.

And of course, the Empire State Building, opened in 1931, towers over everything.

Today, the block looks similar to its 1975 version—but the stores are much more upscale. Lower Fifth has been transformed into a high-end shopping strip crowded with women on weekends.

What are these fur district gargoyles doing?

September 26, 2011

Dingy West 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was once the heart of the city’s fur district, reaching its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The block is still lined with fur warehouses and fur showrooms, though slowly their numbers are dwindling.

It’s easy to walk down the street and totally miss what seems to be a Gothic ode to the fur industry in the middle of the block, at number 214.

That’s the location of a curious building called the “29th Street Tower,” the entrance of which is flanked by these two grotesques.

This creepy character above looks like he’s massaging a beaver—or examining a beaver pelt?

The second one is more of a mystery. He appears to be holding a squirrel, letting it chew his finger. Is it kind of a last meal before the squirrel gets made into a coat?

Super cheap East Side apartments in the 1980s

September 26, 2011

Do you ever wish that you could go back in time and pay 1980s prices for Manhattan real estate today?

If you could jump in the way back machine to 1984, a one- or  two-bedroom apartment in the Norfolk Arms at 170 Norfolk Street could be yours for under $65,000.

What would you pay these days to live in what was then a dicey block on the Lower East Side? According to Streeteasy, the number would be in the vicinity of a half million.

The “Village East” address in this ad isn’t specific, but 2,500 square feet of “rawish” loft space for under two grand a month sounds like a steal.

Both ads come from the September 1984 issue of the East Village Eye.

The Russian baths on posh “La Fayette Place”

September 22, 2011

“Dr. Edward Guttmann (1828-1896), a German immigrant who arrived in New York in 1854 to practice medicine, founded the Russian Baths on Lafayette Place in the mid-1850s,” states the caption to this 1870s lithograph by John Lawrence Giles.

It’s in a wonderful book of prints called Impressions of New York, by Marilyn Symmes.

“The print, made to publicize the establishment (after Guttmann had sold the business), shows of the facility’s interior amenities to prospective gentleman customers.”

These baths, on what was then called La Fayette Place, a posh residential neighborhood in the 1830s and 1840s, “were most popular with well-off Russian-Jewish immigrants, as it both reminded them of their homeland and reinforced a sense of community in their new country.”

What’s a farmhouse doing on East 29th Street?

September 22, 2011

Tucked just inside Third Avenue on a Kips Bay block near a noisy country and western bar is this wooden clapboard beauty.

The more you look at the lovely home, the easier it is to imagine it as a lone farmhouse on one of Manhattan’s vast estates in the late 18th and early 19th century.

That’s before the street grid, dreamed up in 1811, carved up the city, and houses like it were torn down (or just as likely, burned down, as wood structures had a habit of doing).

Historians can’t seem to agree on the year the house, at 203 East 29th Street, was built, but it may have been as early as 1790, when the neighborhood was known as Rose Hill.

Fast forward a century. Here it is, looking rather rundown, in a 1915 New York Public Library photo.

Since then, it’s been renovated, obviously—the roof, windows, and siding are all reproductions.

So what would it cost you to make this East Side farmhouse your home?

A Streeteasy listing says it was rented in 2010 for $5500 a month—quite a bargain for one of the city’s oldest houses. Check out the photos of the interior.

The thieving street walkers of 1870s Soho

September 20, 2011

“Strangers visiting the city are struck by the number of women who are to be found on Broadway and the streets running parallel to it, without male escorts, after dark,” wrote James D. McCabe in his 1872 guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“They are known as Street Walkers, and constitute one of the lowest orders of prostitutes to be found in New York.”

“They are nearly all thieves, and a very large proportion of them are but the decoys of the most desperate male garroters and thieves.”

One common scam, McCabe explains, was for a street walker to lure a tourist to her room in one of the subdivided “bed houses” in today’s Soho.

There, the street walker and a male confederate would rob the tourist while threatening his life.

Another trick was what McCabe called “panel thieving”:

“She takes her victim to her room, and directs him to deposit his clothing on a chair, which is placed but a few inches from the wall at the end of the room. This wall is false, and generally of wood.”

While the street walker and customer do their thing, a male thief will quietly slide out from behind the fake wall and lift the customer’s wallet.

The sucker won’t realize what has happened until he is out on the street, the street walker and her co-conspirator long-gone.

Faded receipts from defunct city businesses

September 20, 2011

Think about the receipts you’ve carelessly stashed in your junk drawer or wallet. If they survived the next hundred years, what would they say about how New Yorkers lived in 2011?

I’m sure the homeowner who left these receipts under the floorboards of his Clinton Hill townhouse about a century ago had no idea that they would shed light on which industries thrived in turn of the century New York.

Ferrell & Ruth were dealers in the seven major food groups for well-off New Yorkers. And hey, 176 Bedford Avenue is smack dab in the center of hipster Williamsburg today, the site of the Salvation Army thrift store.

Of course, ice companies still exist. But obviously refrigeration has drastically reduced their numbers. I wonder if 600 pounds of ice for $1.30 was a bargain?

The ice industry was actually pretty dirty back in the day.

Ship plumbing, now that’s a specialized trade. Fred Buse’s operation was on Old Slip off the East River, where the city’s maritime industry thrived.

[Special thanks to J. Warren for loaning me these bits of ephemera]