Archive for August, 2012

The colossal factory anchoring West 23rd Street

August 30, 2012

Used to be that factories were built along the waterfront, like this gigantic red-brick beauty at the Hudson River end of 23rd Street.

It was the headquarters of Christy, Constant & Co., a wallpaper manufacturing firm; the lithograph dates to the 1860s.

Now, our waterfront is devoted to leisure. Chelsea Piers, Hudson River Park, and the High Line are the main attractions around the factory site.

When Sullivan Street had a “Murderers’ Row”

August 30, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great to travel back in time and poke around the city’s old alleys and courtyards, the remnants of pre-street grid Manhattan?

Murderer’s Row in today’s West Soho was one.

No trace of this colorfully named nook exists there, amid Sullivan’s tenements and Federal-style homes. Luckily Charles Hemstreet recalls it in his 1899 book Nooks & Corners of Old New York.

“‘Murderers’ Row’ has its start where Watts Street [the top street on the map at left] ends at Sullivan, midway of the Block between Grand and Broome Streets.

“It could not be identified by its name, for it is not a ‘row’ at all, merely an ill-smelling alley, an arcade extending through a block of battered tenements.

“After running half its course through the block, the alley is broken by an intersecting space between houses—a space that is taken up by push carts, barrels, tumble-down wooden balconies and lines of drying clothes.

“‘Murderers’ Row’ is celebrated in police annals as a crime centre. But the evil doers were driven out long years ago and the houses given over to Italians. . . .

“Constant complaints are made that the houses are hovels and the alley a breeding-place for disease.”

If you wander down to look for the intersection of Sullivan and Watts Streets, you won’t find it. When Sixth Avenue was extended to Tribeca in the 1920s, the corner was obliterated—along with several tiny blocks.

But the NYPL Digital Collection has a 1916 street map of the corner.

Right: Watts and Sixth Avenue near Sullivan, about where the characters of Murderers’ Row plied their trade.

Nell’s: The trendiest nightclub in 1980s New York

August 30, 2012

Where did rock stars, artists, Wall Street traders, models, and the people who hung around them in mid-1980s Manhattan go to mingle?

Nell’s, a former electronics store-turned-nightclub on West 14th Street near Eighth Avenue. It was supposed to be a throwback of sorts, a retreat from the Studio 54 kind of excess.

The space cultivated the look of an elegant, Victorian gentleman’s club—one with a velvet rope, tough door policy, and lines stretching around the block.

This ad, which ran in the November 1993 issue of Interview gives a quick look at some of the regulars (Quentin Crisp? Salmon Rushdie?). By the early 1990s, however, Nell’s had lost some of its cachet, reports a 1994 New York Times article.

Nell’s closed in 2004, but will always be remembered as a 1980s hangout. Even Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was a regular.

The coolest old-school clock on Lafayette Street

August 27, 2012

These days, 436 Lafayette Street, a gorgeous 1870 cast-iron and brick building by Astor Place, is the home of 20th century furniture dealer Alan Moss Studios.

But thankfully the current tenant didn’t toss out this vintage brass timepiece, a remnant from a previous tenant, Mann Refrigeration, which occupied the address at least in the 1960s.

New York has lots of lovely street clocks—like these beauties along Fifth Avenue.

The Bull’s Head: a rowdy 18th century tavern

August 27, 2012

Chalk it up to the young city’s festive, indulgent vibe—or the fact that the drinking water wasn’t always safe to consume.

But colonial-era New York supported lots of bars. One was the Bull’s Head Tavern, built around 1760 near Canal Street and the Bowery—at the time, the outskirts of the city.

It was a rough-and-tumble place that catered to the livestock industry nearby: butchers, cattle men, and drovers (the guys who marched animals down to this district of stockyards and slaughterhouses).

“Out-of-town drovers and city butchers congregated in the smoky, low-ceilinged rooms of the Bull’s Head Tavern, which stood just below modern Canal Street amid a jumble of stables, cattle pens, and slaughterhouses,” states Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Besides boozing, gambling, and carousing, Bull’s Head patrons enjoyed another attraction: bear-baiting, a not uncommon colonial pastime.

There was a celebrity patron too: George Washington. He and his staff met here on Evacuation Day in 1783, after British troops left the city.

The Bull’s Head thrived here as late as the 1820s, until the neighborhood became more genteel and residents drove the tavern and the slaughterhouse industry uptown—to about today’s Third Avenue and 24th Street.

[Bottom sketch: NYPL Digital Collection]

The incredible life of New York’s “strongest boy”

August 27, 2012

Born in 1910, Jack Beers’ early years echo a familiar East Side story.

His Austrian immigrant parents were desperately poor. His family shared a cold water flat on East Sixth Street, heating it with bits of coal that had fallen off trucks. Jack pitched in by hawking the Daily News on Avenue B.

But he was also entranced by bodybuilding. Blessed with incredible natural strength, he began training in Tompkins Square Park and later on Coney Island.

As a teenager, he performed as a strongman in city clubs and on vaudeville stages, earning local fame and the title “New York City’s Strongest Boy.”

His story is chronicled in the 2006 documentary Holes in My Shoes, which features Jack, then 94, talking about his life and revisiting his old East Side haunts.

After a hand injury at a pool hall ended his strongman career, he went to work at Fassler Iron Works on East 10th Street and helped build New York’s top skyscrapers. He trained dogs and later became a character actor.

As the trailer from Holes in My Shoes shows, Beers retained amazing power even as a very senior citizen—watch him rip a phone book apart with his bare hands. He died a few days short of his 99th birthday.

[Photo: Holes in My Shoes]

“Moments of a vanished time” in Hell’s Kitchen

August 23, 2012

Inspired by the 1972 Helen Levitt photo “Kids With Laundry” that was posted here last week, Ephemeral reader Paul Mones sent me these snapshots he took in the early spring of 1973.

Born in the Bronx, Mones was a college student then; the photos were part of an essay for an urban sociology class he took at SUNY Buffalo.

They chronicle some seemingly ordinary street scenes from 33rd Street to 50th Street or so: the merchants, shoppers, pedestrians, and storefronts of a typical stretch of Manhattan in the early 1970s.

I imagine that Mones didn’t think he captured anything remarkable when he developed the film. But he did: They’re lovely, unposed glimpses into little moments of a vanished time, as he put it.

Check out the hand-painted bar signage, pre-Korean deli vegetable dealer, metal garbage can, and messy bargain bins outside a discount store that’s now probably the home of a fusion restaurant or upscale cocktail lounge.

And a shoeshine stand/umbrella repair place! So many relics of another era.

[All photos copyright Paul Mones]

What if the city really did rename the Bowery?

August 23, 2012

The first attempt to change the name of the city’s oldest thoroughfare appears to have been in 1895.

A New York Times article reported a rumor that the Bowery, an English corruption of the Dutch term for farm, bouwerie, would soon be known as Parkhurst Avenue.

It had to be a joke. Parkhurst was Charles Parkhurst, a social reformer who battled the Tammany-backed gangs and saloons that made up the tacky, crime-ridden Bowery in the late 19th century.

The next try at a less low-rent moniker, according to a Times piece from 1897, was Piccadilly. Why Piccadilly? It was never explained—but the proposal didn’t gain any ground.

Another stab at a new name to shed the Bowery stigma happened in 1916. Business owners who wanted a “fresh start” suggested Central Broadway and Cooper Avenue. Dignified, yes, but very dull.

Again, the suggestions went no where. After that, Bowery merchants and residents seem to have thrown in the towel and accepted that their street would always be the city’s skid row.

[Photo: Bowery in 1910, NYPL Digital Collection]

Ghostly subway signage at Chambers Street

August 23, 2012

Time stands still at the Chambers Street J and Z station.

This deteriorated stop on the BMT, under the Manhattan Municipal Building, is like a subterranean ghost town. Its platforms are mostly empty, and paint peels while water drips from the ceiling.

But there’s one upside to the terrible neglect: No one has bothered to paint over the old-school IRT Lexington Avenue signs on several beams.

Most of the signs—1960s or 1970s maybe?—are much more faded than this one. They once pointed the way to the busier, tidier Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall 6 train station connected via a passageway.

“Night in New York” on a darkened street

August 20, 2012

This shadowy and mysterious Martin Lewis etching from 1932 presents a lone young woman dressed for a night on the town.

Is she on her way to a date or a party—or is she coming back alone, mourning another evening that didn’t quite pan out as she’d hoped?