Reading a tenement on the Lower East Side

A century ago, in New York’s densely packed neighborhoods, corner buildings often had the names of the cross streets carved into the facade, usually on the second story.

It’s never been clear to me if this is because poorer neighborhoods lacked real street signs or if it was part of an ornamental trend.

It makes sense on corners that would be seen from elevated trains — but sometimes the street names appear on buildings where no elevated line ever passed. (Maybe an elevated train was planned for the corner at one time and never came to pass?)

In any event, it’s always a treat to spot a new one though, like this one on a tenement at Canal and Eldridge Streets. It’s hard to see, hiding under 120 or so years of grime and traffic exhaust.

Here’s a whole bunch more, some fanciful and lovely, others more utilitarian.

6 Responses to “Reading a tenement on the Lower East Side”

  1. Tom Hakala Says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. You will see some of the same street markings on buildings in the old sections of other U.S. cities (I can remember a few in San Francisco) and very frequently in the older sections of European Cities. I suspect that NYC (and other cities) may have had ordnances requiring the owners of corner buildings to place the signs or allow the City to do so. The builder of the photographed building very nicely cut the (required?) street markings in stone – fortunate, as they are still there for us to admire.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Tom—very interesting. I almost wish someone would start an urban history site exploring these street markings in various cities around the world.

  2. Bella Stander Says:

    Street names are engraved in the corners of the wall at the south end of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (erected 1809) on Mott/Mulberry at Prince St.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      One of my favorite corners in New York—and I’m not sure I’ve seen this one!

  3. Andrew Porter Says:

    This is common throughout British cities, and I see it here in Brooklyn Heights.

  4. Thaddeus Buttmunch, MD Says:

    I’m not from the City, but there were three kinds of tenements. Prelaw-with NO requirement for open spaces, courtyards, or even one window per unit. The Old Law (or “Dumbbell”) tenements had those stipulations. New Law tenements were somewhat better, but few were built-mostly between 1900-1910. By the 1920s, Manhattan was building mostly heavy construction, steel-framed mid-rises and high rises. As far as Harlem goes, most of the West Harlem buildings are not technically tenements. German Jews lived there, along with Italians and the Irish. East Harlem was a satellite of the crowded Lower East Side. It DID have mostly tenements, starting in about 1880. They followed the El Train. West Harlem was overbuilt and over-speculated; it sprang up following the New York Subway line. When the apartments couldn’t be filled, prices crashed and African Americans from other areas moved in.
    Feel free to correct me here.

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