Archive for November, 2011

A photojournalist’s “subtle and whimsical” city

November 28, 2011

Andre Kertesz, born in Hungary in 1894, made a name for himself with his photos of fellow Austro-Hungarian soldiers in World War I.

“Unlike other war photographs, Kertesz’s concerned themselves with the lives of soldiers away from the fighting,” writes’s American Masters website.

“Part of Kertesz’s genius was his ability to cast attention on images seemingly ‘unimportant.’ These subtle images of the moments of joy and contemplation away from the front were a revolutionary use of the newly invented hand-held camera.”

After the war and artistic success in Paris, he arrived in New York in 1936. Kertesz intended to stay briefly, but financial difficulties and then World War II made it impossible to return to France.

So he remained in New York and took pictures‚ wonderful off-center images with a modernist sensibility of the urban landscape and the people inhabiting it through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

“For nearly twenty years his gifts remained relatively unrecognized in New York,” states Only in 1964, when a one-man show was held at the Museum of Modern Art, did he get the notice his work deserved.

“Very few artists are able to witness the formation of their own artistic medium. Kertesz was not only able to witness much of the beginnings of hand-held photography, but had a profound effect on it.

“With subtle and whimsical artistry, he took full advantage of a medium not yet sure of its own potential, and for that, contemporary photography remains in his debt.”

[Photo at top left, 1944; top right, Third Avenue and 46th Street, 1936, bottom left, 1943; bottom, 1959 on Sixth Avenue]

The city law that turned corner bars into brothels

November 28, 2011

This is the story of the spectacular failure of a law, a precursor to Prohibition, that interfered with New Yorkers’ fondness for local taverns.

In the 1890s, the temperance movement, already making progress nationally, was bearing down hard on New York City.

Progressive reformers and groups like the Anti-Saloon League lobbied city leaders to curb, if not end, the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the city.

The result was the Raines Law, passed in 1896, “which raised licensing fees for saloons and prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in restaurants and hotels with ten or more beds,” explains Michael A. Lerner’s Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City.

How did bar owners beat the law? They began serving “meals” of pretzels with drinks, which city magistrates ruled “were enough of a meal to excuse many saloons from the Sunday closing laws,” writes Lerner.

“The statute also encouraged the proliferation of seedy ‘Raines Law hotels,’ created by saloon owners who partitioned back rooms and upper floors of their bars into ‘bedrooms’ to meet the new licensing requirements.

“Not only did this innovation allow Sunday drinking in the city to continue unabated; it also prompted saloon owners to rent out their back ‘bedrooms’ to prostitutes to meet the higher cost of these new licensing fees.”

More than 1,000 Raines Law hotels were established, allowing drinking and prostitution to thrive in a way Progressive reformers had never imagined.

[Images of New York bars in the 1890s from the NYPL Digital Collection]

Christmas ads for long-gone Brooklyn businesses

November 28, 2011

There was no such day as Black Friday in late 19th century Brooklyn, of course.

But the commercialization of the Christmas holidays was certainly in full swing, with businesses on Fulton Street—the city’s premier shopping drag at the time—coming up with homey images of Santa Claus and Christmas trees to sell their wares.

This card, from a grocery and tea dealer at 493 Fulton, shows as heartfelt a holiday scene as any ad you’ll see today: a well-dressed mother, a candlelit tree, a little girl watching from behind a curtain.

S. A. Byers Fine Boots and Shoes, at 527 Fulton, was trying to sell “elegant slippers for the holidays” by giving us a jolly Santa, crackling fire, stockings filled with gifts, and holly leaves.

These ads come from the Fulton Street Trade Card Collection, a database of old business cards made available by the Brooklyn Public Library.

The mansion that gave Carnegie Hill its name

November 26, 2011

Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills made him a huge fortune in the 19th century.

Still, he found “‘ostentatious living’ profoundly distasteful and the conduct of most New York millionaires strictly irresponsible.”

So in 1903, he decamped from his brownstone on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, on Millionaires’ Row, and moved into a home he built 30 blocks north—practically the country at that time.

He wanted “the most modest, plainest and roomiest house in New York” with land for his wife to garden.

The Georgian mansion he commissioned was a palace compared to most New Yorkers’ homes—but it reflected his view that “the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts…. Without wealth there can be no Maecenas.”

The four-story, 64-room mansion at Fifth and 91st Street was a technological marvel with a steel frame, elevator, central heating (sucking down two tons of coal on a winter day) and a primitive form of air conditioning.

Carnegie lived here for 16 years with his wife, daughter, and 20 servants. Every morning an organist arrived, so he could wake up to his favorite tunes.

He contemplated his philanthropy in his library overlooking Fifth Avenue, as a neighborhood built up around him.

The mansion is still there, but now houses the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

A Yale student vanishes on New Year’s Day 1984

November 26, 2011

In the early morning of January 1, 1984, 24-year-old Samuel Arthur Todd took a break from a party at 271 Mulberry Street to get some air . . . and was never seen again.

His disappearance is one of those New York cold cases that seems to be forgotten, but it shouldn’t be.

Sam was a Yale Divinity School student who had graduated from Vassar in 1981. Active in social justice causes, he’d planned to be a minister, like his father.

On New Year’s Eve 1983, he and his brother met friends to celebrate at different parties in what articles later reported as Chinatown, today’s Nolita.

“At their third stop, a party in a second-story loft on Mulberry Street, Samuel told his brother he had drunk too much and his head was spinning,” The New York Times reported in March 1984.

“He went down to the street to get some air, shrugged off [his brother’s] offer to join him and was last seen by his brother as he began jogging the half-block toward [Houston] Street. He never returned.”

On New Year’s Day and in the weeks after, friends and family scoured the city looking for him, posting thousands of fliers and checking in with police frequently.

They insisted that Sam was “solid and stable,” someone who had no reason to disappear. He’d left his wallet, ID, and coat at the Mulberry Street party, as if he had intended to return.

But no leads, clues, or trace of Sam have ever been found.

Various theories have been introduced over the years. Was he solicited by a cult? Was he the victim of a gay basher, even though he was straight? Did he have a mental breakdown?

Sam’s friends rejected these scenarios. Sam would be 52 years old this year. But whether he’s even alive remains a mystery.

The dazzling tiles of a Central Park ceiling

November 26, 2011

New York has lots of beautiful ballroom, bar, and lobby ceilings. One of the most magical is at the Bethesda Arcade—the arched walkway in the center of the park that brings you to Bethesda Fountain and the Central Park Lake.

It’s an enchanting place to go when the weather gets dreary, a colorful antidote to gray winter days. [above photo from]

“Installed in 1869, there are more than 15,000 colorful, patterned encaustic tiles, made by England’s famed Minton Tile Company,” states

Encaustic tiles, originally created to cover the floors of European cathedrals, are made of individually colored clays pressed and fired into the tile to form the design. Bethesda Arcade is the only place in the world where Minton ceramic tiles are used for a ceiling.”

Dirty and weathered over time, the tiles were taken down in the 1980s and put in storage until 2007, when the newly restored Arcade was reopened to the public.

The strangest Macy’s Parade balloons ever

November 21, 2011

Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade has been a city tradition since 1924, and the iconic balloons began appearing three years later.

Since then, beloved characters from Felix the Cat (the first balloon) to Kermit the Frog to Sonic the Hedgehog have made an appearance (or two).

And while most of the balloons are met with great applause, looking back, some seem like, well, weird choices.

Like this Eddie Cantor balloon from the 1940 parade (above).

Cantor was a top singer in vaudeville and on Broadway at the time, but was the bug-eyed star really that popular with the kids of the day?

These days, the reputation of New York City police officers has taken a beating.

But in 1937, a cop appeared in balloon form at the parade, seen here (at left) on Broadway and 56th Street. I wonder how that would go over today.

Santa Claus of course isn’t a strange choice for a parade balloon.Since the launch of the parade, he’s been at the tail end of the procession, the last float to be welcomed into Herald Square.

What I want to know is, why does this Santa balloon, from the 1939 parade, look like he has a penis attached to his chin?

The solitary view “From Williamsburg Bridge”

November 21, 2011

“‘From Williamsburg Bridge’ is a city scene without noise or motion,” explains a page devoted to this 1928 Edward Hopper painting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

It looks like the Delancey Street approach to the bridge, a row of tenement tops that may still be there today.

“The light on the buildings is bright and steady, and the only person visible is a woman sitting in profile in a top-floor window,” states the Met site.

“The broad format of this painting implies the continuation of the scene beyond the limits of the canvas: we can imagine the street, the girders of the nearby bridge, and perhaps other, identical brownstone buildings with solitary tenants lost in reverie.”

Harpo Marx: a poor street kid on East 93rd Street

November 21, 2011

As many New Yorkers know, the Marx Brothers, including Adolph “Harpo” Marx, grew up in a crowded tenement at 179 East 93rd Street, off Third Avenue.

That’s in upscale Carnegie Hill today. But in the 1890s, during Harpo’s childhood, it was “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the South in Yorkville,” he writes in 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

His recollections offer a glimpse into life as a poor Manhattan street kid circa 1900, when ethnic background determined everything.

“If you were caught trying to sneak through a foreign block, the first thing the Irishers or Germans would ask was “Hey kid! What Streeter?” he recalls. “I learned it saved time and trouble to tell the truth. I was a 93rd Streeter, I would confess.”

“The worst thing you could do was run from Other Streeters. But if you didn’t have anything to fork over for ransom you were just dead.”

“I learned never to leave my block without some kind of boodle in my pocket—a dead tennis ball, an empty thread spool, a penny, anything.”

Life in New York at that time wasn’t all about being bullied. After quitting P.S. 86 when he was eight, Harpo watched tennis games in Central Park, went sledding with a dishpan, and swam off the East River docks.

He also dodged the ticket takers on trolley cars so he get around without paying the fare, and he watched Giants games for free at Coogan’s Bluff above the Polo Grounds near 155th Street.

And he learned to tell time by “the only timepiece available to our family, the clock on the tower of Ehret’s Brewery (above) at 93rd and Second Avenue, which we could see from the front window, if Grandpa hadn’t pulled the shade.”

[Image of Ehret’s Brewery:]

The beginning of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway

November 17, 2011

A century ago, the majestic trees lining the pedestrian malls along lovely Eastern Parkway, seen here where it starts at Prospect Park (illuminated by what looks like one lone street light!), were not much more than saplings.

The handsome apartment houses flanking Eastern Parkway, which gave the boulevard the long-ago nickname Doctors’ Row, have yet to be constructed.

And that tower on the right? It’s the water tower built at Prospect Park, opened in 1893 at the northeast corner of Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue.