Archive for February, 2012

The busty ladies on a Henry Street tenement

February 27, 2012

There is something rather unsettling about these two women, fronting a tenement entrance on a stretch of Chinatown’s Henry Street.

It’s not the fact that they are thrusting their chests out—it’s the facial expressions, like demented dolls. They and the bearded man in the middle have been creeping out residents and passersby for at least a hundred years.

An “empathetic observer” of 1950s New York

February 27, 2012

During the week, Greenpoint native Frank Oscar Larson made a living as an auditor, and eventually a vice president, of a Manhattan bank.

But in his spare time, he was an avid street photographer—and his intimate, sometimes haunting images are finally getting their due.

In 1949, after his kids were grown, Larson spent the next decade on “weekend expeditions around New York with his beloved Rolleiflex Automat Model 4 camera around his neck, produced thousands of images which he developed in a basement darkroom,” states the website for the Queens Museum, which is exhibiting Larson’s photos through May 20.

“Some were printed and entered in photography competitions where he won awards, but most remained undiscovered until the cardboard box of negatives that had been packed away since Frank’s death in 1964, was found,” the site explains.

Larson’s shots focus on regular people, and they transform mundane moments into richly atmospheric and vulnerable scenes in many neighborhoods, including Times Square, Chinatown, the Bowery.

Many more examples of his work can be found here.

A downtown couple runs an errand—and vanishes

February 27, 2012

The last time anyone saw Camden Sylvia and her boyfriend, Michael Sullivan (left), the couple was returning a video to a rental store near City Hall.

It was the evening of November 7, 1997. After that, they pretty much vanished into thin air.

Sylvia, 36, and Sullivan, 54, both artists, shared a loft in a shabby 1840s fifth-floor walk-up at 76 Pearl Street for years.

Neighbors suspected their disappearance may have had to do with the fact that earlier in the day, Sylvia gave the building’s owner, Richard Rodriguez, a letter stating that unless he turned up the heat, tenants were going on a rent strike.

Rodriguez and the couple were embroiled in an ongoing battle over building conditions and rent, which was stabilized at $300 a month.

Police focused on Rodriguez. They searched the Hudson River, and they brought scent-sniffing dogs to his property upstate. But there was nothing to link him to their disappearance.

Rodriguez served a few years in state prison for tax evasion. But he was paroled in 2002, and though Sylvia and Sullivan are long presumed dead, no trace of them has ever been found.

[Right: 76 Pearl Street today, no longer owned by Rodriguez]

The bubble-window brownstone of 71st Street

February 23, 2012

It doesn’t get any lovelier than Lenox Hill’s East 71st Street, between Second and Third Avenues, a quiet, tidy block mostly of turn-of-the-century brownstones.

And then there’s the bubble brownstone at number 251.

How else to describe this facade wiped clean of its circa-1899 decorative elements, its windows replaced by plastic-looking pods?

A search of the building’s history turned up this, from the May 9, 1976 New York Times, in an article on innovative window design:

“An interesting variation of the bay window can be found at 251 East 71st Street, where the architect Maurice Medcalfe used large oval glass bubbles for his windows.”

Strange as it first seems, it actually grows on you and sort of works with the scale of the rest of the street.

A 1990 map of NYU in the East Village

February 23, 2012

Was it really true that New York University only had five academic buildings and residence halls in the entire East Village as recently as spring 1990?

That’s when this map dates to, taken from a course catalog. (Do they still publish course catalogs in the smartphone era?)

Twenty-two years ago, NYU was concentrated around Washington Square, as it still is. But in the years since, as anyone who lives in the neighborhood knows, they’ve built several monster dorms between 12th and 14th Streets.

And the East Village might be in for more development, making this map some kind of small-town vintage relic of a less NYU-oppressive time.

The first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge

February 23, 2012

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in May 1883, it gained fame for its beauty and accessibility. And not long after that, it became known for its jumpers.

The first person to leap from the bridge was Robert Odlum, a 34-year-old swimming instructor.

On the afternoon of May 19, 1885, after going to church, he assembled an audience: a tugboat full of spectators in the East River, as well as a rescue swimmer waiting below to help him onto the boat after he hit the water.

Around 5:30, with the bridge packed with pedestrians strolling the walkways, Odlum climbed over the rail and took his plunge.

“To lower the impact, he held one arm above his head and the other pressed to his side,” writes G.S. Prentzas in The Brooklyn Bridge.

Did he survive? Initially, yes. He rose to the water’s surface motionless, and another man on the tugboat swam out to get him and bring him on board. But his insides were lacerated, and he died that evening.

Why he did it is kind of a mystery. Some sources say it was just a daredevil stunt, others that he was after fame and fortune. He did become famous—and ever since, others have taken the same leap into the East River, with mixed results.

A Depression-era gang on Bedford Street

February 20, 2012

Another wonderful etching from Martin Lewis, this one titled “Bedford Street Gang” and dating to 1935.

The theater wall says “44th Street,” but this corner looks an awful lot like the intersection where Bedford Street ends at Christopher Street. The Lucille Lorton Theater is there today.

New York City: the capital of the United States

February 20, 2012

It lasted little more than one year.

But between April 1789—when George Washington was sworn in as the first president (at left)—and July 1790, New York was the nation’s capital.

What was the city, with a population of just 28,000, like back then? Rich and crude.

“Men and women of the upper class dressed in the latest fashion from London or Paris and attended balls,” explains a 1989 New York Times article.

“But the streets were unpaved, narrow and crooked, often unlighted at night and frequently impassable because of wandering pigs.”

Despite these problems, many citizens, as well as brand-new secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted New York to be the permanent capital.

The city’s advantages: it was equidistant between New England and the South and had all the hotels, restaurants, and other amenities a proper capital needed.

Problem was, Thomas Jefferson, the new secretary of state, hated New York. He thought the nation’s capital should be located in “a new rural setting on the Potomac, across from his native Virginia,” write Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: An Illustrated History.

Jefferson and Hamilton were deadlocked on the issue—until Jefferson agreed to acquiesce to Hamilton’s demand for the Federal government to assume states’ Revolutionary war debts.

In turn, Hamilton abandoned the dream of keeping the city the nation’s capital.

[Illustration at left: View of Broad Street by George Holland, 1797. Federal Hall, where Washington was sworn in, is in the center; above, the George Washington statue at the modern-day Federal Hall, commemorating his inauguration]

The 1980s model slashed by her spurned landlord

February 20, 2012

It was one of those brutal, senseless crimes that rallied all of New York, dominating the media for years.

Marla Hanson was a struggling 24-year-old model who lived at 433 West 34th Street. She’d rented her $600 apartment from Steven Roth, a TV makeup artist who at some point made crude sexual advances toward her—which she spurned.

Apparently upset by the rejection, and the fact that Hanson was moving out and wanted her security deposit back, Roth hired two thugs to cut her face.

On June 5, 1986, while standing outside her building arguing with Roth, the goons approached her. One held her head while the other ran a razor blade over her from cheek to cheek.

“Every corner of her face was slashed; the muscles that controlled her smile were severed, half her nose skinned,” reported People in 1987.

It took 150 stitches to close the wounds, and she was left with an S-shaped scar from her right cheek to the corner of her mouth.

In 1987, Roth and the thugs all got 5 to 15 years in prison for the attack. Her modeling career over, Hanson became a screenwriter and victims’ advocate.

She didn’t have to worry so much about money though. Philanthropist Milton Petrie, touched by Hanson’s ordeal, provided her with $20,000 a year for the rest of her life.

[Top photo: Marla Hanson with then-boyfriend Jay McInerney in 1990; bottom, her apartment building on 34th Street, the scene of the slashing, from]

Chatham Square: home to the city’s whorearchy

February 16, 2012

In the 1820s, it was an open-air market for horses and dry goods bordering a genteel neighborhood of row houses (as seen here, in an illustration looking back on 1812).

By the 1850s, Chatham Square was kind of the Times Square of its day, a seedy district of flophouses, taverns, cheap merchants, and the city’s first tattoo parlors on the outskirts of the East Side’s notorious Five Points slum.

How seedy was it? Describing the prostitution rampant there in his book City of Eros, Timothy J. Gilfoyle writes:

“Along its western edge, the Bowery and Chatham Square were a bourse of sex. The patrician George Templeton Strong claimed that after nightfall, amid the theaters, saloons, dance halls, and cheap lodging houses, the thoroughfare overflowed with ‘members of the whorearchy in most slatternly deshabille.’

“Once elegant eighteenth-century residences like that of the merchant Edward Mooney at 18 Bowery now served as brothels.”

Like everything in New York, the red-light districts change as well. Prohibition, the Depression, a growing Chinatown, and slum clearance all remade Chatham Square into a messy but not sleazy intersection off the Bowery.

It’s now known as Kimlau Square, which honors American servicemen of Chinese ancestry who died for their country.

[Above photo: an 1853 Daguerreotype of Chatham Street, now Park Row, looking toward the Square]