Archive for September, 2012

Looking toward Battery Park from the water

September 24, 2012

Postmarked 1903, this vintage view of Battery Park—from a ferry from Staten Island or Governor’s Island?—is kind of the daytime opposite of this one.

The bold street photography of Gordon Parks

September 24, 2012

Born in 1912, Gordon Parks excelled as a fashion photographer, composer, screenwriter, and director (he helmed the 1971 classic Shaft).

But it’s arguably his street portraits that really resonate—like the one above, “A Woman and Her Dog in Harlem New York 1943” and below, “Harlem Neighborhood, New York City” (1952).

Impressed by photos of migrant workers he saw when he was in his 20s, Parks bought a second-hand camera, taught himself to shoot, and soon set up a business doing portraits in Chicago.

He became one of the most prominent photographers of the 20th century, depicting workers and servicemen for government agencies, doing fashion spreads for Vogue, and chronicling race relations and the Civil Rights movement on staff at Life magazine.

Below: “Three Boys Who Live in the Harlem Area,” 1943

His ordinary images of the men, women, and children of Harlem and other city neighborhoods still pack an emotional punch. They freeze in time moments of triumph, uncertainty, and loneliness.

Above: Fulton Fish Market, 1943

Two current exhibits celebrate Parks: one at the International Center for Photography and the other at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Central Park’s hidden Alice in Wonderland statue

September 24, 2012

You’ve likely passed New York’s most famous Alice: an 11-foot bronze of the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and other characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic.

This kid-friendly statue been at 74th Street on the east side of Central Park since 1959.

But there’s a lesser-known homage to Alice that predates the bronze sculpture by 23 years. It’s tucked inside Levin Playground a few minutes away.

Once a drinking fountain but since 1987 refitted with sprinklers, this granite statue features Alice, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Duchess.

The characters might look familiar: They were designed by the same sculptor whose animal depictions grace the Central Park Zoo.

Why two homages to Alice in one park? I’m not sure, but the fountain was dedicated to Sophie Irene Loeb, founder of the Child Welfare Board of New York City.

Loeb (left) spent her life helping city kids, building bath houses, implementing school lunch programs, supporting housing reform, and creating recreational opportunities in Central Park.

Alice also lives underground at the 50th Street subway station on the 1 train.

A view of a smaller-scale Fifth Avenue in 1900

September 20, 2012

I’m not sure when this postcard was made, but the postmark is stamped 1906; I think it has to be a bit earlier.

It’s a view of the corner of Fifth and 57th Street, then a luxe address lined with mansions and now a luxe address lined with much taller hotels and grander apartment houses (and a few surviving mansions).

The mansion on the right was owned by the very wealthy Mary Mason Jones. The building in the middle of the block is the former Savoy Hotel, later the site of the Savoy Plaza Hotel and now home to the GM Building, which houses the Apple Store and FAO Schwartz.

When western Canal Street had a “Suicide Slip”

September 20, 2012

Canal Street really was a canal back in the early 19th century; it carried filthy water from polluted Collect Pond, near Lafayette Street, and emptied it into the Hudson.

After the canal was filled in and made a road in 1820, the far western edge of newly named Canal Street served a more ghoulish purpose.

“The Street took its name naturally from the little stream which was called a canal,” writes Charles Hemstreet in his 1899 book Nooks and Corners of Old New York.

“The locality at the foot of the street has received the local title of “Suicide Slip” because of the number of persons in recent years who have ended their lives by jumping into Hudson River at that point.”

The Historical Guide to the City of New York also marks this as a suicide spot. “The small park at West and Canal Streets was once called Suicide Slip,” it states mysteriously.

The female names carved into tenements

September 20, 2012

Used to be that ships and hurricanes were typically named after women.

And it seems that tenement and prewar developers used the same tradition when they named New York’s residential buildings.

The surviving monikers are a glimpse into the favored female names of the era.

The Sylvia is a six-story building at 59 West 76th Street. So who was Sylvia?

No one knows for sure, but one theory is that the name comes from Shakespeare’s heroine in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

Anastasia Court, built in 1926, is on Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge.

The Florence is another old-world beauty out in Bay Ridge. It’s not the only Florence in the city.

There’s a Florence walk-up tenement at 128 Second Avenue at St. Marks Place and another on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

And this Morningside Heights tenement, The Bertha, isn’t the only Bertha in Manhattan. There’s another in Harlem.

Bertha and Florence: Clearly two very popular chick names back in 1900!

The most iconic faded ad in Greenwich Village

September 17, 2012

I have no idea when this advertisement for Bigelow’s Pharmacy first went up on the side of the Sixth Avenue store’s building at Ninth Street.

But I’m glad that it’s still in pretty good shape. Bigelow’s has been in business since Martin Van Buren was president, and its famous customer list includes Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The business of C. O. Bigelow, Inc., retail drug prescriptions, is one of the oldest of its kind in the world. Its activity extends all over the world and includes the filling of orders from such distant places as India and Africa,” a New York Times real estate article explained in 1937.

The soda fountain is gone, but the cool old store sign is still out front. Inside are original wooden cabinets and old-timey chandeliers with gas jets.

When electric lights first illuminated the city

September 17, 2012

From its earliest years, New York was too bustling a city to stay dark when the sun went down.

In 1697, the Common Council mandated that every seventh house “cause a lantern and candle to be hung on a pole during the dark time of the moon,” reports a 1930 New York Times article.

Sixty years later, officials levied a tax for “installing lamps, paying watchmen to attend them, and purchasing oil,” according to a 1997 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

Gas street lighting replaced oil lamps in the 1820s, starting at Broadway and Grand Street. And in 1880, the first electric street lights arrived along Broadway between 14th and 26th Streets—as seen above in this sketch from the April 1881 cover of Scientific American.

This was the leading entertainment and shopping district of the city at the time. Having electric lights from Union Square to Madison Square was described by one visitor as reminiscent of “pale moonlight.”

“By October 1884,” according to the LPC report, [a visitor] could write of “the brilliantly illuminated avenues of New York,” on which he “drove from the Windsor Hotel, NY, to the Cunard Wharf, a distance of about four miles through streets entirely illuminated by electricity.”

Within a few decades, electric incandescent lights were installed on the streets, bridges, and in buildings, and New York became known for its enchanting nighttime glow.

The wooden phone booths in a Chelsea bar

September 17, 2012

Old, dark neighborhood bars and pubs often harbor a back-room secret: vintage wooden phone booths, the kind that used to exist all over New York.

Now, of course, they’re an endangered species.

That’s mostly thanks to cell phones, but also the fact that few people seem to think it’s necessary to duck away somewhere to have a private conversation.

These two twin old-school booths (with working phones!) are at the end of the carved Mahogany bar at Peter McManus Cafe at Seventh Avenue and 19th Street, still packing in drinkers after 76 years.

More vintage phone booth sightings can be found here.

A vintage view of Rockefeller Center’s rooftop

September 13, 2012

Rockefeller Center is still a hugely popular tourist attraction. But some things have changed.

First of all, it hasn’t been the RCA building since the 1980s. Second, look at that skimpy railing! Isn’t there a much taller security barrier around the rooftop now?