Archive for June, 2012

The teary-eyed angel of a Brooklyn cemetery

June 28, 2012

This angel looks to be weeping or wiping away a tear as she (he?) guards a grave at the Evergreens Cemetery on the Brooklyn-Queens border.

More angels just like this one stand by tombstones all over this necropolis of about half a million, which includes the graves of many German immigrants who settled in nearby Bushwick in the 19th century after the cemetery was founded in 1849.

It’s a lovely place to visit on a warm summer day.

What life was like in squalid “Blind Man’s Alley”

June 28, 2012

Of all the wretched courtyards and alleyways of late 19th century Manhattan, few sound as bad as the little nook known as Blind Man’s Alley.

Located at 26 Cherry Street, Blind Man’s Alley was so squalid, it made it into 1890’s How the Other Half Lives, by social reformer Jacob Riis:

“Few glad noises make this old alley ring. Morning and evening it echoes with the gentle, groping tap of the blind man’s staff as he feels his way to the street.

“Blind Man’s Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy….”

Murphy made a fortune off rents, and he battled a health department mandate that he clean things up and make the alley more hygienic. [Above: photo by Riis inside one of the tenements]

“Sunless and joyless though it be, Blind Man’s Alley has that which its compeers of the slums vainly yearn for. It has a pay-day,” continues Riis.

“In June, when the Superintendent of Out-door Poor distributes the twenty thousand dollars annually allowed the poor blind by the city, in half-hearted recognition of its failure to otherwise provide for them, Blindman’s Alley takes a day off and goes to ‘see’ Mr. Blake.

“That night it is noisy with unwonted merriment. There is scraping of squeaky fiddles in the dark rooms, and cracked old voices sing long-for-gotten songs. Even the blind landlord rejoices, for much of the money goes into his coffers.”

[Right: Sketch of Cherry Street, where Blind Man’s Alley is located, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The bold jewel heist at a popular city museum

June 28, 2012

Could the Museum of Natural History have made it any easier for two thieves to break in and make off with $400,000 in gemstones?

Probably not. It happened on October 29, 1964. Robbers Jack Murphy (right, a former surfing champion) and Alan Kuhn, both from Miami, had already cased the museum and found security at the fourth floor jewel hall to be pretty deficient.

The main burglar alarm hadn’t worked in years, and the alarms in the display cases never had the batteries replaced.

And there was that window left open, which allowed the robbers to get inside the museum via a rope.

Murphy, Kuhn, and an accomplice waiting outside that night made off with the 563-carat Star of India, a blue sapphire donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan, as well as diamonds, rubies, and other rare gems valued at over $400,000.

The thieves didn’t have the loot for long, reports this piece from Mental Floss:

“[They] were apprehended two days later in Miami; according to Murphy, Interpol identified them because they were spending too much money and they were ‘partying too strong.’ The Star of India was recovered from a locker in a Miami bus station.”

All three thieves got three years in prison, and Jack Murphy ended up there again after he was convicted of murdering a young woman in 1967.

The Museum of Natural History hopefully has installed better security since then.

The lovely draped ladies of 542 Broadway

June 25, 2012

I love spotting faces and figures on the city’s older buildings—like these lovely caryatids on a loft building between Prince and Spring Streets on Broadway, built in 1884.

Lower Broadway has its share of elaborately carved ladies. Two more women are part of the facade of the Cable Building, building just up the street on Broadway and Houston.

What’s a trolley station doing off second avenue?

June 25, 2012

Because subways and cars were doing a better job transporting people around the five boroughs, officials phased out the city’s trolleys by the 1950s.

Yet strangely, they forgot to dismantle at least one trolley kiosk.

Since 1957, it’s sat alone (and recently fenced off) on a concrete island off Second Avenue and 60th Street, where the Queensboro Bridge approach begins.

This little kiosk, with its terra cotta panels and copper roof, was once one of five serving passengers on the Manhattan side of the bridge.

Each sheltered a staircase leading to an undergound trolley station that took commuters to Roosevelt Island or into Queens.

You can still see the Entrance and Exit signs on the kiosk, which has been repainted recently—though the staircase has been removed and the floor is solid concrete.

“The trolley terminal is now used by the Department of Transportation to store trucks and equipment, but the streetcar portals can still be seen from the lower roadways of the bridge, just east of Second Avenue,” notes a 1998 New York Times article.

New York’s coolest vintage liquor store signs

June 25, 2012

You probably won’t find organic wines or imported microbrews in these old-school city liquor stores. Their shabby vintage signs tell us that they’re traditional neighborhood shops where you can pick up decent booze at decent prices.

Casa Oliveira, on Seventh Avenue South near Sheridan Square, opened in 1936. Does the sign still light up? I’ve never seen it at night.

It’s always 1977 at Discount Liquors, on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, where old New York–type bums hang around outside all night, drunk off their asses.

The Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights was once the borough’s largest and most luxurious hotel. Today, part of the complex serves as a dormitory for New York–area college students.

Established in 1933—in other words, as soon as Prohibition was over, some enterprising shopkeeper opened this no-frills liquor store on the Lower East Side, which is still going strong 79 years later.

Park Avenue South: three centuries, three views

June 21, 2012

In the photo below, taken in 1890, this stretch of Park Avenue South only had its name for two years. Before that, it was known as plain-old Fourth Avenue.

The intersection at 31st Street wasn’t exactly bustling. It featured a market, a laundry, and two very different hotels.

The opulent Park Avenue Hotel was built as a home for working women in 1876 (it failed thanks to its stringent rules). The low-key place next door is the Brandes, a holdout from a more rural city, explains New York Then and Now.

A lot happened in 84 years. Both hotels and the other small-fry businesses are gone, replaced by a canyon of 1920s-era office buildings and apartments (and a few saplings in giant planters in the median).

Today, Park Avenue South and 31st Street is pretty similar to its 1970s counterpart—minus the saplings.

Way in the distance in the center of the photo is the Park Avenue Tunnel, which sends cars underground at 33rd Street.

The tunnel used to carry railroad tracks, then streetcars—you can see them going in and coming out of the tunnel in the top photo.

[Top two photos: from New York Then and Now, Dover publications]

The city’s star female impersonator of 1904

June 21, 2012

All but forgotten today, Julian Eltinge was one of the highest paid actors in the early 1900s.

His shtick: He played all his roles in drag.

But unlike most drag queens, who present a caricature of a woman, Eltinge was a “gender illusionist” pretending, with a wink, to actually be a woman.

He made his debut in his 20s at the Bijou Theater in 1904. In subsequent shows written just for him, he played to packed houses.

Audiences knew he was a man, but he was so convincing as a woman, he was dubbed “Mr. Lillian Russell.” He even launched a magazine that gave women beauty tips.

Perhaps to fend off rumors that he was gay, Eltinge put up a macho facade off-stage and was known to smoke cigars and get into bar brawls, according to It Happened in New York City, cowritten by Fran Capo.

His star faded in the 1920s after leading roles in silent films. He died in 1941 following a 52nd Street club performance.

If you want to see Eltinge today, head to the lobby of the Empire Theater, at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

This is the former Eltinge Theater, and a ceiling mural—uncovered during renovations in the 1990s—depicts three women in flowing robes, all of whom are thought to be Eltinge.

Faded ads for Manhattan’s old-school hotels

June 21, 2012

These once-respectable hotels have long been shut down or converted into apartment houses or SROs.

Lucky for us, the advertisements for them on the sides of city buildings still linger. Like this one for the Paris Hotel, which opened in 1931 on West End Avenue and 97th Street.

Today it’s a high-end rental. The pool is still there, but I wonder if they still have the rooftop solarium.

Towering over East 39th Street is this ad for the Dryden East Hotel, formerly the Hotel Dryden, built in the late 1920s. It too is now a luxury residence.

You can barely make out the name on this ad, for the Vigilant Hotel on Eighth Avenue off 28th Street. Once a legitimate place to bunk for the night, it’s now one of the last fleabag flophouses in the city.

Before it gets the inevitable boutique hotel makeover, read the fascinating details on what it’s like to stay at the Vigilant, from this first-person account.

“Tattoo and Haircut” on the Bowery

June 18, 2012

Tattoo parlors, sketchy barber shops, and shady characters hanging around an all-night Bowery mission are all part of painter Reginald Marsh’s “Tattoo and Haircut,” completed in 1932.

Marsh’s paintings typically feature the city’s marginalized Depression-era outcasts.

“What interested Marsh was not the individuals in a crowd, but the crowd itself … In their density and picturesqueness, they recall the crowds in the movies of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra,” wrote Marilyn Cohen in Reginald Marsh’s New York.