Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

Pity the tenement dwellers outside on a sweltering summer night in 1883

August 8, 2022

Take a look at this illustration, and you can feel the distress—the relentless nighttime heat that wraps you like a blanket, the airless alley stinking of garbage, and the irritability that comes with spending the night on your tenement roof surrounded by equally miserable neighbors.

Last month I posted an illustration that captured the suffering in the tenements during the heat wave of 1882. This image by illustrator W. A. Rogers, “New York: Heat Wave, 1883,” brings us the same conditions in a different tenement during a different heat wave a year later.

Studying the conditions in the illustration—and the faces, especially of the old woman on the balcony with the fan, and the young mother spread out surrounded by her children—and you’ll really appreciate having an A/C unit or a fan, at the very least!

The Lower East Side’s Mechanics Alley is one of the last true alleys in Manhattan

July 18, 2022

In the Hollywood-inspired imaginations of people who don’t live here, New York City is a place with shadowy alleys around every corner where danger lurks.

Though the city past and present certainly has its dark pockets and little-traveled lanes, Gotham never really had many alleys, even in its earliest days. The creators of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan, which laid out the street grid, wisely knew that real estate would be too valuable to intentionally leave undeveloped.

Some 18th and early 19th century alleys became true streets, others got wiped off the map. A few continue to exist. I’m a fan of Theater Alley, beside Park Row near City Hall, was once home to Manhattan’s theater district. Three-block Cortlandt Alley makes for an evocative cut-through from Franklin Street to Canal Street.

Mechanics Alley in 1850

Then there’s Mechanics Alley. In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge approach and flanked by exhausted tenements and squat commercial spaces, this mostly abandoned strip of rough asphalt used to run from Cherry Street to Monroe Street, according to the 1850 street map above.

Today, it reaches three full blocks to Henry Street between Market and Pike Streets. Though it tripled its size by subsuming another now-forgotten lane a few blocks up, Mechanics Alley is about as marginalized as a street can get. It’s possible to walk up and down it several times in the middle of the day and not spot another human.

The lack of foot traffic makes sense in this patch of Lower East Side. Stuck between two bridges and steps from the East River, it’s no longer a densely populated part of Manhattan. But how did Mechanics Alley come to be in the busy post-colonial city, when this neighborhood was teeming with people? How did it get its name, which suggests cars and garages?

It all has to do with the waterfront. In the late 18th century, shipbuilding yards “covered the waterfront all the way to Corlears Hook, attracting carpenters, smiths, shipwrights, coopers, chandlers, joiners, sail makers and rope makers,” stated reporter Daniel Schneider in a 2000 New York Times column.  

According to Schneider, Mechanics Alley began appearing on maps in the early 19th century. At the time, these and other artisans and craftsmen were called mechanics, he wrote. “New York was one of many American cities to have a Mechanics Row, Alley, or Place near the waterfront, usually where ships were built and repaired,” he explained.

Sure enough, Manhattan had another Mechanics Alley—actually Mechanics Place—which spanned second and third streets on the east side of Avenue A, per Valentine’s Manual of Old New York in 1922.

Avenue A wasn’t exactly on the waterfront. But this main street in today’s East Village was close enough to what used to be called the Dry Dock District, a 19th century center of shipbuilding along the East River where thousands of dockworkers, shipbuilders, and mechanics once lived and worked.

A second Mechanics Place existed off Rivington Street between the now-demapped Lewis and Goerck Streets, states

Another author advanced a different idea of how this alley got its name. “Though no documentation exists for the name of this short alley, it may be associated with the early history of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen,” wrote Sanna Feirstein in Naming New York: Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names.

“Formerly founded in 1785 and still in existence today, the Society’s original mission was to advance and protect the political and economic interests of American craftsmen,” explained Feirstein. “Though their first meeting hall was at Broadway and Park Place, they owned land in the Chatham Square area, giving rise to the speculation that their organization may be the basis for this alley’s name.”

An 1882 sketch of a bell tower on the East River, which tolled at the beginning and end of a mechanic’s workday

The mechanics may be gone, along with the riverfront industries that relied on their skills. Their organizations have moved away as well; the General Society occupies a beautiful building on 44th Street.

But ghostly Mechanics Alley, marked up with graffiti and mostly hidden beside a bridge approach, is a monument to the tradesmen and craftsmen who helped build the modern city.

[Second image: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: LOC]

A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story

July 14, 2022

Amid the fortune making and social swirling of New York’s Gilded Age, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States. Seventy percent of those newcomers took their first steps on American soil via Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Gotham’s two immigration processing depots.

In the early 1900s, Sadie Frowne was one of these new arrivals. A few years later, this 16-year-old’s story of surviving in New York—”The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl”—made it into a fascinating 1906 book called The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

The broad strokes of Sadie’s story are not unlike those of other poor immigrants, left to find their way in a chaotic, unwelcoming city desperate for their labor. What sets her experience apart are the details she reveals: the smell of the steamship across the Atlantic, the budgeting she did on the Lower East Side to save her meager earnings, and the friendships and love she found to replace her family.

Immigrant women at Ellis Island, 1910

Sadie begins her tale in a Polish village in the late 19th century. Her parents operated a small grocery shop, and they also “worked in the fields,” using two back rooms of the store as their home.

When she was 10, she lost her father. “After he died troubles began, for the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were food and clothes to provide,” said Sadie. “We needed little, it is true, but even soup, black bread, and onion we could not always get.”

Sadie’s mother, who she describes as “a tall, handsome, dark-complexioned woman with red cheeks” and was “much looked up to by the people, who used to come and asked her for advice,” thought she and her daughter should try their luck in America, “where we heard it was much easier to make money.”

Arriving in New York Harbor

An aunt who lived in New York “took up a subscription” among friends and relatives so the two would have the money for passage.

“We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully,” said Sadie. Twelve harrowing days later, “at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.”

After being fetched by her aunt (likely at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and replaced Castle Garden), Sadie found a position as a servant. “I was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn, so I received $9 a month in board and lodging, which I thought was doing well.” Sadie’s mother started work at a factory “making white goods,” or undergarments, at $9 a week.

Mr. Goldstein’s sweatshop, 30 Suffolk Street in 1908

Sadie describes her mother as a lively woman who wanted to see the sights in New York. But that led her to contract “hasty consumption”—a virulent strain of tuberculosis. “Two doctors attended to her, but they could do nothing, and at last she died, and I was left alone,” stated Sadie.

This teenager’s survival instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” She sewed six days a week and pocketed $4 per payday.

Sadie and another sweatshop girl, Ella, shared a room on Allen Street, which cost them $1.50 a week. The arrangement worked, and by budgeting the cost of food carefully, they saved money. “It cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did not know much English.”

After two years in the Allen Street room—which had a dirty, noisy elevated train overhead—Sadie moved to Brownsville, which the book describes as “the Jewish sweatshop district of Brooklyn.” Her new job, at a factory that manufactured underskirts, paid her $4.50 a week, and then $5.50.

Her workday started at 7 in the morning and ran to 6 at night. “The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get,” she said. “All the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right.”

Some male employees harassed her, touching her hair and making jokes. But one man, Henry, defended her, and he became her sweetheart. “Henry has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not 17 yet, and I think that is too young. He is only 19, so we can wait.”

At the end of the workday and on her Sundays off, Sadie believed that “you must go out and get air, have pleasure.” She and Henry go to Coney Island’s dance halls, or Ulmer Park—a Coney beer garden. She also enjoys theater and reading romance novels. “I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don’t go out with anyone except Henry.”

Toward the end of her story, Sadie stated that her workplace recently went on strike, with the backing of her union. “We struck for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight. We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the same pay as before….The next strike is going to be for a raise of wages, which we all ought to have.”

“So the union does good after all in spite of what some people say against it—that it just takes our money and does nothing. But though I belong to the union I am not a Socialist or Anarchist. I don’t know exactly what these things mean.”

Sadie’s story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had a rich, fulfilling American life.

Here’s another story of a young immigrant girl arriving in New York City in the Gilded Age, per The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

[Top photo: Lewis Hine/NYPL Digital Collections; second photo: Bain Collection/LOC; third image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; fourth photo: Lewis Hine/LOC; fifth image: The Lives of Undistinguished Americans; sixth image: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Bain Collection/LOC]

Where life in New York City was lived “on the steps”

July 11, 2022

Between the cramped spaces, poor ventilation, and shadowy hallways, life inside a New York City tenement could be hard to bear, especially in warm weather. For relief, people headed to their outside steps: men buried themselves in the newspaper, women rocked babies, small kids played games. In a pre-air conditioned city, front stoops were lively places.

It’s unclear exactly where Ashcan painter George Luks captured this scene outside a rundown building. But he appropriately named the painting “On the Steps”—where much of life played out in New York’s tenement districts.

What remains of the horses that powered Gilded Age New York City

July 11, 2022

If you could time-travel back to the 1880s, you’d notice all the horses first. (Second would be all the horse manure, but that’s another story.) At the time, an estimated 170,000 horses pulled the streetcars, delivery wagons, and carriages that allowed New Yorkers to get around the metropolis.

Cedarhurst Stables, 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues

But the era of horse-powered transportation was coming to a close. Elevated trains were whisking passengers across Manhattan and Brooklyn; cable cars began replacing some horse-drawn streetcar lines. The subway arrived in 1904, and by the 1910s, the motor car (or “devil wagon,” as haters called it) sidelined horses from Gotham’s streets.

Considering that much of New York’s infrastructure was built when horsepower ruled the roads, surprisingly little of the equine era remains.

The carriage roads of Riverside Drive are still with us, as are horse water fountains in some city parks. Manhole covers with patterns to prevent horse hoofs from skidding exist as well. Stable blocks and mews where the wealthy once parked their broughams have been converted to (pricey) homes for humans.

The former stable at 49 Market Street

Yet sometimes you see an ornamental ghost from the horse-powered past. Look up at 157 West 83rd Street to the red brick car garage—and a handsome horse head on the facade will delight you.

The garage used to be Cedarhurst Boarding Stables. Cedarhurst first appeared in city directories in 1892, according to Walter Grutchfield. Just 16 years later, the four-story stable became Cedarhurst Garage, for automobiles.

Another decorative horse head can graces 49 Market Street on the Lower East Side. The site is a lot less illustrious than the Cedarhurst, but it too was home to a stable in the Gilded Age—in 1894, according to Bowery Boogie.

And like the Cedarhurst, the stable didn’t last long, as the automobile era took hold. By 1915, “the two-story brick structure as we know it today was already in place,” per Bowery Boogie. The horse head—complete with bridle—remains high above this old New York street.

The misery of trying to sleep during the New York City heatwave of 1882

July 4, 2022

When the city is in the grips of a punishing heatwave, and you live in a tenement with almost no ventilation (let alone a cross breeze), you do what you can to get some rest.

For the roughly two-thirds of New Yorkers who lived in old-law tenement buildings in 1882, that meant resorting to dangerous options like climbing out on the flimsy roof, hanging out the window sill, or even catching rest on the back of an open wagon.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1882

In 1882, an artist working for Frank Leslie’s illustrated Newspaper captured this scene of East Side misery. Turns out there was a terrible heat wave in July 1882, and newspapers covered the toll it took, reporting the daily count of people who suffered “heat prostration” and either died or were brought to hospitals.

“The atmosphere continued to retain its scorching quality even after darkness came on, and those who fancied that nightfall would bring some relief were disappointed,” wrote The New York Times on July 12.

[Illustration: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper/LOC]

A once-elegant Lower East Side house where a gruesome sport played out

July 4, 2022

The Federal-style brick house at 47-49 Madison Street has been battered by the elements for more than two centuries.

But imagine what it must have looked like after it was built in the early 1800s. In post-colonial, population-booming Gotham, it was likely a comfortable home for a single family on a respectable street—formerly part of the Rutgers farm on today’s Lower East Side.

Perhaps the commercial space on the ground floor was part of the original layout, a storefront for a merchant or artisan whose family occupied private quarters on the second and third floors, with bedrooms behind those dormer windows.

But distinguished streets in New York City have a way of becoming disreputable pretty quickly. Already looked down upon because of a typhus outbreak there in 1820, Madison Street (known until 1826 as Bancker Street) “turned less desirable,” states the 2012 guide book, Lower East Side.

Madison Street’s slide continued through the next decades. Not only was it near the rough and ready East River waterfront, where boardinghouses and dive bars for sailors abounded, but it was dangerously close to the Five Points, the notorious slum district a few blocks north.

By the middle of the 19th century, 47-49 Madison’s days as a family home were long over. At that point, the house had transformed into a venue for a kind of gruesome entertainment contemporary New Yorkers generally have a hard time understanding: rat baiting.

Rat-Baiting at “Sportsman’s Amphitheater”

“Rat killing was the premiere gentlemen’s betting sport of the mid-19th century,” stated Atlas Obscura in a 2014 post. “The boys of the Bowery were paid 5-10 cents for each rat collected, and spectators crowded into the hall to bet on how many rats the fighting dogs could kill in a given time span.”

In the early 1850s, the rat pit at 47-49 Madison was called “J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall.” Marriott’s wasn’t the only rat-fighting venue in New York City at the time. Not far away at 273 Water Street, a man named Kit Burns entertained crowds by pitting rats against terriers.

47-49 Madison Street in 1939-1941

“Behind closed doors all over the area, the debauched pastime thrived, with politicians and well-to-do society members coming downtown to gamble amid the saloons and slums of the Five Points,” stated Atlas Obscura.

After Marriott departed, 47-49 Madison Street had a new owner. Harry Jennings was an Englishman who continued staging rat fights for sport. In a 1910 Brooklyn Times Union article recalling Jennings, a man who was his neighbor across Madison Street wrote: “Boys at that time could sell all the rats they could catch….He would put a certain number in the pit, and the dog that could kill the most in a given time was considered the winner.”

Kit Burns’ rat pit on Water Street

“I well remember the racket they used to make—men hollering, dogs barking, and rats squeaking.”

Jennings ended up doing time for robbery. When he came back to New York, the sport of rat-baiting was losing its appeal. He left Madison Street and became a legitimate rat killer, hired by fancy hotels and businesses to catch the innumerable rats that made their homes in high-class hostelries and stores.

“He made lots of money at his queer trade,” wrote The Evening World in an announcement of his death in 1891.

As for 47-49 Madison Street, the little house was occupied by an undertaker. In the 1960s, a discount store called Johns moved in. Today it’s a prayer hall, according to Atlas Obscura.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: Wikipedia]

The long tradition of New York City’s ice cream man

June 16, 2022

Today we have Mister Softee parked all day at playgrounds. In the 1970s, a man with an Italian Ice cart waited beside school bus stops offering small white cups of cherry, raspberry, or lemon for 10 cents. In the midcentury city, the Good Humor truck made the rounds of New York neighborhoods.

And in 1885, the ice cream man was a peddler with a wagon that looked as rundown as the streets he visited. “A summer scene in the streets of New York” the caption reads.

Almost 140 years have passed since the image was published, and the enthusiastic response from city kids after spotting an ice cream vendor hasn’t changed one bit.

[Image: NYPL Digital Collection]

How an East Village alley was renamed for a Ukrainian poet hero

April 4, 2022

From the city’s earliest days, streets were named after local bigwigs, typically a landowner. So in 1830, when it came time to name the one-block alley between today’s East Sixth and Seventh Streets (part of an early 18th century enclave called Bowery Village), the tradition continued.

The little slip between Third and Second Avenues became Hall Street, after Harlem landowner Charles Henry Hall, who sold the property to the city in 1828, according to a New York Times piece by Michael Goldman from 1999.

Hall Street didn’t always make it onto 19th century street maps, and it was changed in 1855 to Hall Place for unknown reasons. For 148 years, as Bowery Village morphed into the Lower East Side and then broke off to become the East Village, the Hall name stuck.

Hall Street, between Seventh Street and Tompkins Market on an 1840 map

Then in 1978, Charles Henry Hall was replaced by Taras Shevchenko, and the street officially bore the name Taras Shevchenko Place. Who is Taras Shevchenko, and what prompted the name change?

Hall Place made it on the map in 1903

“Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a Ukrainian writer, painter and political activist whose novels and poems, written in Ukrainian, gave forceful expression to his countrymen’s nationalist sentiment at a time when aspects of the culture, including the language, were being suppressed by the Russian czar,” Goldman wrote.

Taras Shevchenko in 1859

Considered a hero to many Ukrainians, the name change was pushed by the Ukrainian immigrants who settled around East Seventh Street after World War II and built a community dubbed “Little Ukraine” that topped 60,000 people in the years following the war, according to Village Preservation.

The site of Tomkins Market in its Hall Street days, Taras Shevchenko Place ends at McSorley’s to the north and borders St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on one side.

It also borders a newish Cooper Union building. Back in 2001 as plans for the new building unfolded, Cooper Union wanted to “demap” Taras Shevchenko Place and create a pedestrian walkway. Thanks to community pushback, that never happened.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia]

A painter captures humanity amid the dirt and darkness of a New York alley

March 28, 2022

Canada-born Impressionist artist Ernest Lawson made his name at the turn of the 20th century as a landscape painter—often depicting the still-rural Washington Heights neighborhood where he lived from roughly 1898 to 1908.

Yet when he turned his eye to the grit of city streets, he captured something equally evocative.

The 1910 painting he called “New York Street Scene” reveals the dirt and darkness of a narrow lane or alley, the discolored backs of buildings made uglier by the fire escapes hanging off them.

But we also see horse-pulled carts, vendor stalls, and vague figures on the sidewalk on the left—bits and pieces of humanity in the hidden pockets of the urban, industrial city.

[Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]