Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

August 6, 2018

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 90.13.3.63; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]

Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

July 2, 2018

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A ship captain built this 1830 Allen Street house

April 9, 2018

In the early 19th century, the city of New York was booming and expanding.

Eyeing undeveloped land on the east side of the Bowery, city officials issued a proclamation in 1803 that ordered “all the streets on the ground commonly known by the name of ‘De Lancey’s ground’ be opened as soon as possible.”

‘De Lancey’s ground’ was a 300-acre estate on today’s Lower East Side (and the namesake of Delancey Street, of course.)

The land was once owned by James De Lancey, a prominent New Yorker of French Huguenot descent who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and subsequently had his land seized by the city.

Within a few decades of the city order, roads, building lots, and then houses went up on the former De Lancey estate. By the 1820s, the area was filling up with tidy 2- and 3-story homes.

One of these homes was the Federal-style house at 143 Allen Street, built in 1830 and a rare survivor of this early 1800s building boom.

Number 143 and five others just like it were developed by George Sutton, a ship captain who sailed between New York and Charleston along what was called the “Cotton Triangle.”

Like so many other New Yorkers, Sutton made his money off Southern cotton.

His ships would bring cotton picked by slaves on plantations to Manhattan, where it would be transferred to ships heading to England, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“The six houses at Allen and Rivington Streets were maintained as investment properties, although Sutton seems to have preferred renting the buildings to friends and business associates—many of whom also participated in the Cotton Triangle trade,” states the LPC report.

Perhaps realizing that middle and upper class New Yorkers were now moving into fashionable neighborhoods north of Houston Street, Sutton sold the Allen Street houses by 1838.

As early as the 1840s, Number 143 was chopped into a multi-family dwelling. Over the decades the occupants reflected waves of immigration, from a Prussian family of eight in the 19th century to 15 tenants, mostly salesmen, in the early 20th century.

Number 143’s stoop was removed at some point in the 1900s—but so were the elevated train tracks that since 1879 had cast Allen Street in darkness (in the above left photo, you can just see the house’s dormers peeking out above the tracks).

A group of artists bought 143 and its surviving sister house, 141, in 1980 (the above photo shows the two homes in 1985.) Number 141 was eventually sold and demolished.

But 143 Allen Street is still with us and mostly intact—built with money made off Southern cotton and today surrounded by luxury dwellings in the new-money Lower East Side.

[Second image: Wikipedia; Third image: NYPL; Fifth Image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report]

This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

March 19, 2018

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]

Mysterious “Mr. Zero” tends to the East Side poor

February 26, 2018

His real name was Urbain Ledoux. Born in Canada in 1874, he wanted to be a priest but pursued law instead, eventually taking a job as the United States consul in Prague.

By 1910, he quit diplomatic service and decided to help humanity in a different way: drawing attention to hunger and homelessness in cities.

Ledoux went to Boston first. An advocate of the Baha’i faith, he called himself “Mr. Zero” and set about securing beds for homeless men. He also built a shelter dubbed the “Poor Men’s Club.”

Unconventional and confrontational, he held “slave auctions” at Boston Common, where he auctioned off the services of jobless men to employers.

Ledoux earned a reputation as an agitator, and he wasn’t exactly welcomed by city officials when he made his way to Manhattan after World War I, where he took up the cause of poor veterans.

“Will the police interfere? I do not know,” Ledoux told the New-York Tribune in September 1921, after he’d announced that he was holding a similar “slave auction” on the steps of the New York Public Library.

“All of those who will be sold, with the exception of one woman, are ex-servicemen. They marched away to war amid the cheers of thousands and with banners and stands there on the Public Library steps paid for by the people’s money.”

Ledoux focused on down and out veterans, but he worked on behalf of all who needed help. His first New York breadline, the Stepping Stone, opened at 203 East Ninth Street in 1919 (above).

He then launched a soup kitchen called The Tub. Sources vary, but it was either at 12 St. Marks Place or in the basement of 33 St. Marks Place (above right and center). Ledoux himself lived on St. Marks as well.

“The Tub is one of the cleanest little restaurants in New York, where you can get meals for 5 cents—all you can eat,” he told the New York Times in 1925.

The Tub also served as an employment agency, and the place cooked up holiday turkey dinners for the poor that regularly made newspaper headlines.

Ledoux, who was widely assumed to be a rich philanthropist, was an unusual anti-poverty and peace activist.

On one hand, some of his actions—the slave auctions (left), for example, and rallying for tickets to President Harding’s inaugural ball so he could bring a contingent of poor people—were seen by some as publicity stunts.

But they were stunts that brought the spotlight on the thousands of people sleeping in parks and scrounging for food in the modern New York of the 1920s.

“It may be that Mr. Ledoux’s plans for dealing with unemployment are fantastic,” wrote the New Republic in 1921 in an interview with Ledoux“They call for the assumption of the burden by the public and the state. They make an immense draft, an overdraft, on the bank of human kindness.”

“‘Yes,’ says Mr. Ledoux, ‘but the nation is in danger, and society is poisoning itself with its waste of human life.'” He died in 1941, and much of his work has been forgotten.

[Photos 1 and 2: Wikipedia; photos 4 and 6: Getty Images; photo 5: Bain Collection/LOC]

Monday used to be laundry day in New York City

January 22, 2018

I’d seen this 1900 image of sheets, shirts, and undergarments hanging between rows of New York tenements before. But I never noticed the caption, “A Monday’s Washing.”

Was Monday the city’s official laundry day? Apparently it was a traditional day to do the hard work of washing clothes, as this excerpt from Tyler Anbinder’s book about the city’s notorious 19th century slum, Five Points, explains.

“Hard wash-days”—typically Mondays—provided some of the most unpleasant memories for tenement housewives such as those in Five Points,” wrote Anbinder.

“They first made numerous trips up and down the stairs to haul water up from the yard. Then they heated the water on the stove and set to work scrubbing.”

“Drying the wash was actually the most dreaded task. . . .The advantage of living on a low floor (with fewer flights of stairs to climb) became a disadvantage on wash day, because when hanging your laundry out to dry, ‘someone else might put out a red wash or a blue wash over it, and it drips down and makes you do your wash all over again.'”

[Top postcard: LOC; second image: Mott Street; third image: Minetta Lane, via MCNY x2010.11.2570]

The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline

January 15, 2018

Bowler hats, thin shoes, and shabby coats that need a good washing—what the men on this Bowery breadline in 1910 are wearing tells us everything we need to know about them.

The bars they’ve lined up next to are advertising Ehret’s and Schaefer beer, both once manufactured in Manhattan (Schaefer eventually relocated to Brooklyn.)

[George Bain Collection/LOC]

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]