Archive for July, 2012

The “river rats” taking a swim off Manhattan

July 30, 2012

Painter George Bellows chronicled many of New York’s slum streets and tenements.

In 1906’s gritty and dark River Rats, he portrays the poor kids who spent summer evenings cooling off in the filthy East River, the docks and rocks their only respite from the heat of the city.

“Along the lower edge of the muddy-colored canvas a gangling group of scantily clad boys is depicted cavorting at the edge of the East River, while the center of the painting is given over to the graceless, rocky cliff descending from the city streets to the water,” writes Marianne Doezema in George Bellows and Urban America.

The rocky cliff in the painting—perhaps it was part of the old Gashouse District in the East 20s or Dutch Hill in the East 40s and 50s, which became an industrial area packed with slaughterhouses and factories before being razed to make way for Tudor City in the 1920s?

A country mansion once on the Upper West Side

July 30, 2012

Picture today’s Upper West Side as it was in the late 18th century, when it was known as the rural village of Bloomingdale and filled with acres of meadows, streams, and wildflowers.

And towering over the landscape on a hill near Columbus Avenue and 91st street was the Apthorp Mansion (below, how it looked in 1790, according to a 1907 drawing).

Constructed in 1764 by wealthy Loyalist Charles Apthorp, the mansion, called Elmwood for its gorgeous trees, was conceded to be “the finest house on the island,” writes Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

A newspaper ad for the property from 1780, reprinted in Upper West Side Story, reveals its loveliness:

“…about 300 acres of choice rich land, chiefly meadow, in good order, on which are two very fine orchards of the best fruit. . . . An exceedingly good house, elegantly furnished, commanding beautiful prospects of the East and North-Rivers, on the latter of which the estate is bounded.”

The house survived the Revolutionary War (it was in the middle of a battleground, after all) and Apthorp was charged with treason. After his 1797 death, his 10 children divided and sold off the land.

In the 19th century, some of the grounds became a popular picnic area called Elm Park. Finally the house itself met its end in 1891 (above), torn down to make way for 91st Street, as the village of Bloomingdale became part of the modern city.

The mansion is commemorated by the beautiful circa-1909 apartment building the Apthorp, on Broadway between 78th and 79th Streets.

When Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx

July 28, 2012

On the morning of October 5, 1977, a parade of limousines, led by six motorcycle escorts and helicopters overhead, drove up the East Side of Manhattan and onto the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

Inside was President Carter (and Mayor Abe Beame). In New York for a UN meeting, Carter made an surprise trip to the South Bronx, then the site of some of the worst urban blight in the country.

“The presidential motorcade passed block after block of burned-out and abandoned buildings, rubble-strewn lots, and open fire hydrants, and people shouting ‘give us money!’ and ‘we want jobs!'” wrote The New York Times the next day.

Carter got out a few times and walked around—as seen is these photos, which reveal just how shockingly deteriorated and bombed out block after block of the South Bronx was at the time.

Carter’s trip meant to show the country that he cared about the urban poor. But his dramatic trip also made the South Bronx a place for other politicians to go when they want to make a point.

While campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan visited a desolate stretch of the borough to point that Carter hadn’t done anything for the community since his 1977 trip.

Jesse Jackson came in 1984, and Bill Clinton showed up in 1997.

Whether any of these visits helped ease the area’s poverty is debatable—but what is clear is that much of the South Bronx has bounced back, a beacon of urban renaissance rather than blight.

[First and third photos: The New York Times]

New York City’s sea mythology street names

July 28, 2012

Tracing the origins of the city’s street names can be fascinating.

Some come from Dutch place names (“Flushing” is thought to have started out as “Vlissingen”), local landowners (Delancey and Warren), or the nearby landscape (Myrtle Avenue had lots of, well, Myrtle bushes).

A handful have their origins in ancient mythology. Neptune Avenue comes from the Roman god of the seas—very appropriate for the avenue running parallel to the ocean in Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

Nereid Avenue in the Bronx is more mysterious. Nereids are the sea nymphs of Greek mythology, who assisted sailors fighting storms and fishermen desperate for a catch.

Thing is, this avenue, a stop on the 2 and 5 trains, isn’t near the sea. So why does a landlocked slice of the Bronx reference water goddesses?

Apparently a volunteer fire company once existed here, according to a book called History in Asphalt by Bronx historian John McNamara—and the Nereid reference has to do with firefighters using water.

Taking a drive on the Harlem River Speedway

July 23, 2012

Where is the quaint, summery, country-like scene depicted in this postcard, stamped 1908? Harlem, of course.

“Recognizing the long-standing popularity of horse racing among New Yorkers, the city built a ‘Harlem River Speedway’ along the west bank of the Harlem River in Manhattan,” writes

“The 95-foot-wide dirt roadway stretched two and one-half miles from West 155th Street north to West 208th Street. Presaging the automobile parkways of the 20th century, the speedway was flanked by trees and pedestrian walkways. When it was not being used as a racetrack, the Harlem River Speedway was used as an exercise track.”

Built in 1898, it was opened to automobiles in 1919 and paved a few years later. By the 1940s, it was closed off and incorporated into the Robert Moses-backed Harlem River Drive.

The lovely bridge in the background is the High Bridge. Closed for 40 years, it’s currently being restored and is set to reopen next year.

Three centuries on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street

July 23, 2012

This 1899 photo of ladies decked out in their elaborate hats and bustles for a day of shopping are wonderful.

But I also love the street sign, lamps, mailbox, and fire hydrant (across 14th Street), published in New York Then and Now in 1976.

“The corner building was originally the William M. Halstead residence, built in the 1830s,” the caption to the photo tells us.

“One of the earliest mansions on the avenue, it was later altered and became, successively, the Old Guard Armory, Midget Hall and Brewster’s Hall; it eventually was occupied by the Gregg Furniture Co.”

The scene is very different in 1974. The tall buildings replaced smaller-scale mansions in the early 1900s, and a white-brick apartment residence occupies the northeast corner.

The lovely signage and lamps are gone . . . as is the shopping traffic.

Today, the streetscape looks the same as it did in 1974, with a few exceptions: more foot and vehicular traffic, thanks to lower Fifth Avenue’s resurgence as a retail district.

Also, there’s new traffic lights . . . and bank branches on both corners.

Madison Square Park: where baseball was born

July 23, 2012

Cooperstown, New York has traditionally been credited as the birthplace of baseball.

Hoboken also vies for the honor; the first professional game was played there.

But some historians say the southwest corner of Madison Square Park (right, in 1860) is where America’s pastime got its mid-19th century start.

“Our modern game of baseball was born in New York City in 1845,” writes Lynn Curlee, author of Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields.

“A 25-year-old clerk named Alexander J. Cartwright organized a group of his friends as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Taking elements from older games, the young men developed a set of written rules, many of which still stand today.”

Still called the Knickerbocker rules, they establish the nine-inning game and mandate the ball should be pitched, not thrown, among other things.

Cartwright and his Knickerbockers practiced the game according to these new rules in and around the park, specifically Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street and then the Murray Hill Grounds at 34th Street and Park Avenue, making it the real birthplace of baseball in some eyes.

[Photo: The Knickerbockers and Excelsior clubs in 1858, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

A brownstone encased in concrete on 64th Street

July 18, 2012

East 64th Street between Park and Lexington is a sweet brownstone block.

But one home sticks out: number 130, which has been strangely hiding behind a concrete grill for much of the past 50 years.

It’s an interesting story. The brownstone went up in 1878 and was bought by architect Edward Durell Stone in 1956.

Stone was an early proponent of modernism; he designed the Museum of Modern Art, the GM Building, and the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle (redone in 2006, but looking a lot like the 64th Street brownstone in the 1960s).

Stone remodeled his new home, adding the concrete screen and putting in plate glass windows behind it.

It was supposed to offer privacy and create a romantic, latticework effect.

Instead, it garnered a lot of criticism. Over the years, the grill collected dirt and deteriorated.

Stone’s widow removed the facade in the late 1980s, then was fined by the Landmarks Preservation Commission because the home was now part of the Upper East Side Historic District.

The grill went back up in the 1990s, a framework of bisected circles rising four stories—exciting or enraging passersby who either love it or hate it.

Izzy and Moe: New York’s top Prohibition cops

July 18, 2012

After Prohibition was ratified in 1919, a new career opportunity was born: Prohibition agent. An army of men were needed to enforce the law by raiding speakeasies and busting bootleggers.

Two men who took up this line of work were New Yorkers Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith (left, as a rabbi and in drag).

Friends (and Masons) before they got the gig, they quickly became famous for the astounding 4,932 arrests they made citywide—and the outrageous lengths they went to pull each one off.

“Moe, although somewhat in the role of straight man, was a highly effective agent, but Izzy (the human chameleon), with his numberless disguises, was the color and front man,” states this Mason newsletter.

“He was, in turn, a traveling salesman, a street cleaner, a banker, a bartender, a grave digger, a streetcar conductor, a Texas cattleman and, in Hollywood, a movie extra.”

Izzy and Moe were hugely popular with the public and the press, and they loved the attention, allowing reporters to cover their raids.

They also loved alcohol, reports one source. “After a busy day arresting Prohibition offenders, Izzy and Moe enjoyed sitting back and enjoying their favorite beverages, which were beer and cocktails.”

In 1925, their D.C. bosses had enough of the Izzy and Moe show and discharged them.

Both became successful insurance agents. Izzy died in 1937, and Moe passed on in 1960.

[Above photo: posing in 1935 for the New York World Telegram and Star]

The women of John Sloan’s South Beach Bathers

July 16, 2012

Exchange the wool bathing outfits for bikinis, and female beachgoers today aren’t much different from their 1908 counterparts, as depicted in John Sloan’s 1908 painting “South Beach Bathers.”

“Sloan first visited South Beach, an amusement park on Staten Island that attracted primarily working-class clientele, on June 23, 1907,” states the web site for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“Like many of his New York–themed works, his depiction of South Beach suggests a story that begins when one person looks at another. In South Beach Bathers a woman adjusting her hat is eyed appreciatively from the side and behind by men lounging on the sand.”

“Women play several roles at once in Sloan’s art: beyond being objects of desire, they record the new independence of modern New Yorkers, while also presenting a variation on old ideals of beauty in art.”