How city kids cooled off in the heat wave of 1953

A 10-day heat wave left the city blistering in late summer 1953, with record temperatures in the triple digits scalding the streets.

Luckily these city kids living in the vicinity of today’s Nolita (see the ad for 276 Bowery) knew how to keep cool: They opened a fire hydrant.

Life magazine photographer Peter Stackpole captured these wonderful images: the spray coming out high into the Belgian Block street, then a boy aiming a flood of water at his buddy.

The next shots show other kids joining in, with no street traffic getting in their way. And then a policeman apparently puts a stop to it.

It looked like a lot of fun while it lasted. Amazingly, almost every kid is wearing long pants!

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19 Responses to “How city kids cooled off in the heat wave of 1953”

  1. S.S. Says:

    The photos were taken in Little Italy (Nolita is a twee term coined by some real-estate slicksters to woo the hipsters), specifically on the south side of Houston at Mott. Bleecker Street loft buildings are seen in the distance.
    The sign survived for another couple of decades.

    This was taken before the second widening of Houston Street, on the north side, in 1957, a plan by Moses to accommodate more autos traveling from the FDR. Note there is no median, as there is nowadays.

    (The first widening took place in the 30s to accommodate the construction of the IND subway line.)

    • Joe R Says:

      I agree with you – I hate those wordplay names that real estate types have given neighborhoods: SoHo, NoHo, TriBeCa, MePa, and – worst of all – DUMBO. Whoever thought up that one should have been given cement shoes.

      • S.S. Says:

        I hate those silly real-estate-coined names too, but, for the record and not meaning to be disagreeable, SoHo was not coined by real estate people, but by City Planning’s Chester Rapkin in a 1963 report that sought to preserve that manufacturing district and its jobs. The name was then popularized by the area’s artist activists who, during their first organizational meeting in 1968, while deciding what to call themselves, chose “SoHo Artists Association”, when one of the attendees referenced the Rapkin Report.

        Same with TriBeCa. Artist activists from Lispenard Street, the street directly south of Canal, which appears as a triangle on City Planning maps, around 1975-76 tried to get the same zoning benefits that their colleagues in SoHo had achieved. Along with other groups, they petitioned City Planning for a zoning change, and their submission was listed coming from the TriBeCa Block Association. A NY Times reporter got hold of a copy and assumed the triangular street referred to the entire neighborhood, and so that is how TriBeCa got its name.

        Similarly, DUMBO was also named by local artist residents who were organizing their nascent neighborhood in the late 70s. Several names were suggested, but DUMBO was chosen precisely because it sounded so silly and annoying, in the hope it would discourage real estate speculation. Indeed, the cement shoes should have been put on the speculators who then flooded the neighborhood.

        Not sure who coined NoHo, the artist activists there or real-estate brokers. Probably the latter, but the locals seemed to accept it, when the zoning text was amended in 1976 to permit work/live quarters, as already was the case in SoHo.

        But, as you said, the plethora of silly, cutesy names for other neighborhoods and micro-neighborhoods coined by real-estate brokers is really annoying and a turn-off.

        The old Italians who lived on Sullivan and Thompson said it best, when they refer to the chi-chi neighborhood to their east as “SoWhat”.

      • Beth Says:

        I totally agree. WahHi? Really?

  2. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I myself never wore short pants in the 1950’s, dungarees were the favored pants, no matter how hot it was. On a young kid or teenager they were a no-no, you would not be see in those or else you’d get your ass kicked on the Lower East Side. I suppose when the rich started warily moving in, bit by bit in the 80’s and 90’s, they brought their fashions along, short pants on men which now is the norm. So it goes…

    • S.S. Says:

      Completely agree.

      In the 50s in Bklyn where I lived, no one wore short pants. That style must have gone out in the early 20th century.
      I would visit my relatives in Scotland in the 50s and all the children there wore short pants and give me a hard time for wearing long pants.

      Then around 1963-64 Bermuda shorts became the style among some of the college kids and adults. A few of us in Prospect Hgts, at 17-18 years old adopted the fashion and none of our neighborhood pals teased us.

      But when I ventured into other, less-welcoming Bklyn neighborhoods, the kids there would taunt me, with wolf-whistles, laughter, the occasional “faggot”, etc.
      It is amazing how repressed and conservative and constrained things were then.
      Same thing happened when I began to sport long hair a couple of years later.

      Remember girls being giving summonses for wearing short-shorts?

      • wildnewyork Says:

        No–I came of age when everyone let everything hang out. But I love the idea of doing a future post on how revealing miniskirts and short-shorts could get a NYC girl in trouble with the police!

      • mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

        Hmm, I wonder if any were stopped and ticketed for having a thong? Oh dear me haha!

      • S.S. Says:

        The charge, I believe, was public lewdness. The papers reported the summonses in the summer of 57, in NYC of all places. Even as a kid, it seemed a bit much to ticket someone for wearing short pants shorter than the norm.

        Short shorts were quite the cultural phenomenon. Check out this big hit:

        And this note about the song, from Wikipedia:
        “. Just then, two girls came strutting out of Luhmann’s (the local teenage sweet shop) wearing cutoff jeans that were cut so short they were almost illegal.”

  3. Drib Says:

    God does that bring back memories. When I was a kid growing up in brooklyn in the early 70s we used to cool off in front of the hydrant. The Fire Department would entrust one of us kids on the block with a sprinkler cap and a wrench for the summer. We all used to figh over who would be in charge. We finally chose to swap every two weeks.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I love that the FDNY would trust one of your kids to open the thing. I can’t imagine kids being given that kind of responsibility today.

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Damn, I remember that. On 13th St between 1st & 2nd they had different older boys who were in charge of controlling the hydrant, that went on into the 1960’s. Wonder why that faded away? (Anyway, that block was ruled by the Untouchables, Puerto Rican street gang, a far cry from what it is today.)

  6. Angela Says:

    Reblogged this on Strega9's Weblog and commented:
    “Summer in the City!”

  7. Angela Says:

    Reblogged this on Italian Harlem and commented:
    “Summer in the City!”

  8. RWils Says:

    Yup, long pants and closed toe shoes…I still can’t shake it when I dress for outside no matter how hot it may be. Shorts are for the house, maybe.

  9. lisaakalisa Says:

    A couple of years ago I encountered some teenagers playing with an open hydrant in front of the Robert Fulton Houses, on West 16th Street. I was on my bike, and stopped for a light, when they decided to aim the water jet directly at my head for about 30 seconds. I think that was the closest I ever came to drowning.

  10. How City Kids Kept Cool in 1953 Says:

    […] by NYPress on July 18, 2012. Posted in NY Press Exclusive The blog Ephemeral New York has a photo spread from Life magazine’s photographer Peter Stackpole of kids cooling off […]

  11. A century of fire hydrants cooling New York kids | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 10-day heat wave gripped the city in 1953, and Life magazine photographers captured some wonderful images of kids opening a hydrant (and then a police officer putting a stop to the […]

  12. Josy Says:

    By the way, it’s not at all amazing that the older boys are wearing long pants in this picture. Boys wore short pants year-round until around 12-13, then they wore long pants exclusively. It was a big deal for a boy to start wearing long pants, and he would have looked and felt silly in shorts.

    Here in the States that was probably ubiquitous through the fifties and early sixties, though I think the custom lasted longer in Europe here.

    A few weeks ago, I was at a grocery store in Harlem and a black man, probably in his mid-late fifties, used the once-common expression “when I was still in short pants,” as he was telling a story to a man in his thirties. After the storyteller left, I was curious to know if the younger man knew what the expression meant. Not surprisingly, he didn’t.

    I do remember that as late as 1970-71, at least among the wealthier classes, there were still young boys who were dressed in short woolen pants and a blazer in the winter for school uniforms or formal occasions.

    My mother, who is nearing 90, still thinks grown men look ridiculous and even slightly gross, in shorts.

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