Archive for August, 2014

The Labor Day parade hits Union Square in 1887

August 30, 2014

A contingent of tobacco workers packed into a horse-drawn wagon turn west through the north end of Union Square in this Labor Day parade photo from 1887.

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It’s another first New York City can lay claim to: the first Labor Day parade was organized by the Central Workers Union to show “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” in the city.

At the time this photo was taken, the parade is only five years old. But it caught on quick. By 1894, the nation begins to celebrate “National Labor Day” on the first Monday of September.

[Photo: MCNY Digital Gallery]

Was a beloved book written on Macdougal Street?

August 30, 2014

Macdougal Street in the West Village casts a huge literary shadow.

In the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis drank and ate at Polly’s and the Minetta Tavern. Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara hung out at the San Remo and the Kettle of Fish.

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And around the corner, Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven while living at 85 West Third Street in the mid-1840s.

But there’s another literary claim to fame on Macdougal Street. In 1868, Louisa May Alcott reportedly wrote part of Little Women from her uncle’s double-wide red townhouse at numbers 130-132.

Louisamayalcott“In 1868, Louisa May Alcott sat at her desk before the second story window in her uncle’s house on MacDougal Street and penned the final paragraph of Little Women, states this New York University web page, by way of City Guide NY. (NYU owns the house now.)

The  joined houses at 130 and 132 MacDougal Street had been built in 1852 and purchased by Alcott’s uncle. Alcott remained in her uncle’s house until 1870.”

Despite what NYU says, there’s some dispute over whether Alcott wrote any of her story about the March family here.

Alcott reportedly wrote the novel at her family’s home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Louisamayalcottb&wAn 1880 New York Times article on Alcott, by that time nationally famous, states that she wrote the novel in Boston.

“Most of her work has been done here; the first part of Little Women was written at the South End, and the second part in the Bellevue Hotel, on Beacon-Street, her favorite quarters. . . .”

LittlewomencoverAnd  in Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, Cheever references the “manufactured” fact that Alcott penned part of the book here.

“Even the amazing NYU archivists have only been able to find references to the fact that Alcott wrote Little Women on MacDougal Street, nothing about how that fact came to be manufactured.”

The roller skating craze fades in 1880s Brooklyn

August 30, 2014

A roller rink once packed in young people in Brooklyn Heights?

Here’s the proof: this late 19th century trading card, which puts the Brooklyn Heights Roller Skating Rink at Fulton and Orange Streets, a corner of old Brooklyn that no longer exists.

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The card is part of the fascinating collection of Victorian-era trading cards digitized by the Brooklyn Public Library.

Ads for the rink appear in the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle. But there’s not a whole lot on the rink itself—though plenty of articles chronicle the roller skating trend of the 1880s city.

RollerrinkfadbrooklyneagleThis October 1886 Eagle article announces the craze as over.

“‘The roller skating craze has passed away, as regards popular favor,’ said a former proprietor of a Brooklyn roller rink to an Eagle reporter.”

“‘Roller skating is like love—once dead, it can never be revived. The first established rinks realized immense profits. At this time last year, no less than 20 rinks were open in this city.

“Many did a good business, but others lost money. The best year for roller skating was the Winter and Spring of 1883 and 1884.'”

Lower Manhattan at night, seen through an arch

August 25, 2014

What a view! We’re looking through one of the arches of the Municipal Building to a Manhattan night sky.

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There’s the Woolworth Building, City Hall, City Hall Park, and the Art Deco beauty known as the Transportation Building “raising [its] head in the background,” the caption of this 1940s-era postcard notes.

Too bad the postcard doesn’t offer a glimpse of the enchanting tiles on the vaulted ceiling above the Municipal Building’s arches. They are Gustavino tiles, installed before the building opened in 1914.

Hidden waterfalls in the tiny parks of Turtle Bay

August 25, 2014

New York has lots of lovely pocket parks that offer a hideaway from urban life.

But the stretch of East Midtown known by its wonderfully pastoral 17th century name, Turtle Bay, seems to have more of these patches of green than other neighborhoods.

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Even better, many of these parks have cascading waterfalls that drown out urban noise and heat and leaves us feeling calm and soothed. No need to head to Central Park for a waterfall fix—these do the trick.

Paley Park (top photo), on 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues (not technically Turtle Bay but close) has a back-lit waterfall, along with ivy-covered walls and locust trees. Financed by a foundation set up by William Paley, former chairman of CBS, it’s attracted quiet crowds since 1967.

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Carved out of a space surrounded by modern apartment buildings and old-school tenements is Greenacre Park, above, created by a foundation organized by a Rockefeller family member in 1971.

The park is designed to be such a break from urban life, photography isn’t allowed (but no one will stop you from taking pictures from the street).

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If the park with this circular wall of water has a name, I missed it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in the blue-purple house, with the sight and sound of falling water accessible from your terrace?

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Across the street from the United Nations on 47th Street and First Avenue is lush, secluded St. Mary’s Garden, part of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church.

It’s hard to see the benches and walkways along the sides, as well as the small waterfall that feeds into the pond on the left.

What was the NYPD phone number before 911?

August 25, 2014

Before July 1968, if you had an urgent situation to report, you actually had to dial the NYPD’s seven-digit main number: 440-1234.

That all changed when the police department adopted the 911 system. Developed by the FCC and AT&T in the mid-1960s, New York was the first city to implement it, for police calls only.

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It was a big success, increasing daily calls to central command from 12,000 to 17,000, cutting down on street crime, and leading to more police cars being dispatched, according to a March 1970 New York Times piece.

As this New York Post ad from December 2, 1970 shows, two years after the police began using 911, the fire department and EMTs adopted it too.

Peeking into the Brooklyn Bridge subway station

August 22, 2014

The opening of the subway was so incredible in the first decade of the 20th century, the new stations were frequently the subject of penny postcards, like this one, with its above ground and inside view.

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“New York City’s subway system is the most complex of any in the world,” the back of the card reads. “The Brooklyn Bridge Station is the busiest in the world. It is estimated that 2,000,000 pass here daily.”

“The subway consists of four tracks, two for express trains and two for local. During the rush hours the trains run on a minute schedule.”

The end of a Madison Square Gilded Age mansion

August 22, 2014

In 1859, Leonard Jerome—one of the richest men in New York City, who amassed a pile of cash in stocks and a name for himself as a horse fancier—made a promise his wife.

JeromemansionLOC1877

“I’ll build you a palace yet!” he told her, while the two were temporarily living abroad and enjoying the social swirl of Paris.

Jerome was a competitive and driven man who would build a racetrack in the Bronx and make and lose fortunes throughout his life. But he certainly stuck to his pledge.

Jeromemansionmadave1870nypl

Once back in New York later that year, he bought a parcel of land on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, a posh neighborhood of new brownstones reserved for New York’s wealthiest.

Jeromemansion1968The Jeromes didn’t want a brownstone, however. Instead they built an extravagant mansion inspired by the architecture of Paris (top photo, in 1877).

“The result was the most lavish statement of the Parisian Second Empire style as applied to domestic architecture in New York before the Civil War,” wrote Wayne Craven in Gilded Mansions.

Jenniejerome“Its design broke with the uniformity of the Knickerbocker brownstones, for the Jerome mansion possessed the signature mansard roof with dormers and a richness of decorated architectural surfaces, especially around doors, windows, and dormers.”

For the next few decades, the Jerome mansion was the site of incredible balls and concerts in the mansion’s theater. And conveniently, Madison Square Garden was soon built across the street (second photo).

In 1867, Jerome’s finances collapsed, and his womanizing compelled his wife to relocate to France with their three daughters (including Jennie, future mother of Lord Winston Churchill, above).

He moved out of his palace, leasing it to the Union League Club.

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By the 20th century, with Madison Avenue no longer stylish, the mansion changed hands and underwent alterations by the University Club and the Manhattan Club.

MerchandisemartAs the decades went on, the Manhattan Club moved uptown, and the Jerome mansion fell into disrepair—a faded reminder of a long-gone era.

In 1965, the house received landmark status from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It was put on the market for $850,000 (above photos, from 1967), but found no takers, and was demolished in 1967.

In its place rose the 42-story tinted glass skyscraper known as Merchandise Mart (left).

[Top, third, and fourth photos: Library of Congress; second photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

A “distinctly vulgar scene” at Coney Island

August 22, 2014

Painter George Bellows depicts a day at the seashore in “Beach at Coney Island”: shirtless boys, a passionate couple, and girls in white bathing attire, all in close quarters at the city’s tawdry summer amusement playground.

GeorgeBellowsSceneatConeyIsland19082

Suggestive, sure, but it’s hard to believe that the painting was considered vulgar by critics.

“His Beach at Coney Island (1908, private collection) signals the relaxed moral codes associated with this locale on Brooklyn’s south shore,” states this page from the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included the painting in the big George Bellows show from 2012-2013.

“One leading critic described Bellows’s teeming view as ‘a distinctly vulgar scene,’ not least because of the amorous couple shown embracing in the foreground.”

A city street photographer’s loners and misfits

August 18, 2014

Louis Faurer, a Philadelphia native born in 1916, made a name for himself as a photographer for top New York-based fashion magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.

Faurerfromtimecapsule1960s

[Above, a still from a silent film Faurer shot in the 1960s called Time Capsule]

Yet he was captivated by the ordinary tide of unbeautiful people that passed him regularly on city sidewalks, at bus stops, under theater marquees.

Faurerwomenatabusstop1949

[“Women Waiting,” 1949]

Faurer turned his camera toward their faces—capturing raw, intimate portraits of the lonely, the haunted, the outcast, and the weird through the early 1970s.

Many of his images had a film noir feel, all shadows and silhouettes, highlighting the melancholy and chaos of urban life.

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[Title and date unknown, above]

He particularly focused on people he found in Times Square, where he walked every day in the late 1940s and was attracted to “the hypnotic dusk light,” quoted Christoph Ribbat in Flickering Light: A History of Neon.

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[“Horn & Hardart Junkies,” 1947]

In an era remembered for its conformity, Faurer sought out individual quirks and oddities. He captured dissonant, uncomfortable moments, but he never sought to exploit his subjects. His aim, as his photos reveal, was to show their humanity.

New York, 1971

[Above, “Chelsea Hotel,” 1971]

FaurerphotoselfIn his 2001 obituary, The New York Times stated:

“For the catalog of a 1981 solo exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland in College Park, he wrote, ‘My eyes search for people who are grateful for life, people who forgive and whose doubts have been removed, who understand the truth, whose enduring spirit is bathed by such piercing white light as to provide their present and future with hope.”’

Louis Faurer, above. More of his images can be found here at this University of Pennsylvania page.