Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain at the Sixth Avenue end of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today, honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]

A West Side hospital meant to look like a castle

August 3, 2020

When the cornerstone of the New-York Cancer Hospital—at 106th Street and Central Park West—was unveiled in an 1884 ceremony attended by wealthy benefactors like John Jacob Astor III, “cancer was still a disease synonymous with shame, believed to be as contagious as syphilis,” wrote the New York Times in 1984.

By the time the hospital began treating its first patients in 1887, former president and city resident Ulysses S. Grant had lost his very public battle with throat cancer, and the mystery surrounding the disease gripped New Yorkers.

An illness as feared as cancer deserved a building that would inspire and uplift.

That might be one reason architect Charles C. Haight chose to model the new facility—a Gothic red-brick collection of five round towers with cathedral-like windows—on a Renaissance chateau in France’s Loire Valley called Le Lude (at left).

Sure, there’s a resemblance. Yet the Renaissance design was about more than aesthetics.

Haight designed the circular hospital buildings in part because “it was thought that the shape prevented air stagnation and the accumulation of dirt and germs in corners,” states Guide to New York City Landmarks. With so much not known about how cancer forms and spreads, germ control was definitely something to consider.

New York Cancer Hospital (above, in 1916) wasn’t the only circular hospital of the era. The former Gouverneur Hospital, on Water Street, also features two sphere-like towers.

This 1901 facility ended up with spherical shapes because “it was believed that tuberculosis bacilli hid in corners, so the shape was an early attempt at preventive medicine,” according to a 1993 New York Times article.

New-York Cancer Hospital has long sense decamped Central Park West; it evolved into today’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Today the chateau-like building is a condo residence. I don’t know what it’s like inside, but the exterior is spectacular.

[First image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.7.1.5196; fourth image: Wikipedia]

Cholera’s grim warning for tenement landlords

March 30, 2020

When New York’s first cholera epidemic hit in 1832 and killed 3,515 people (out of a population of 250,000), the poor took the blame.

“Many city officials implicated the residents of the poorest neighborhoods for contracting cholera, blaming their weak character, instead of viewing the epidemic as a public health problem,” stated Anne Garner, in an online article from the New York Academy of Medicine in 2015.

Cholera struck again in 1849, but by the time the next outbreak happened in 1866, cholera was better understood to be a contagious disease transmitted via contaminated water and other unsanitary conditions.

This 1866 illustration from Harper’s Weekly pins the blame on a different target: the landlords of New York’s tenements—substandard buildings that in the absence of strong housing laws often lacked ventilation and running water and were perfect breeding grounds for cholera.

The green lanterns of a Chinatown police station

January 27, 2020

New York City has 77 police precincts, which means 77 precinct houses. One of the oldest is the Fifth Precinct station house at 19 Elizabeth Street, just below Canal Street—so understated it practically blends right into the tenements beside it.

These days, things are relatively sedate in the neighborhood, which encompasses Chinatown, what’s left of Little Italy, and a bit of Soho as well (since the late 1990s more or less collectively known as Nolita).

But imagine Elizabeth and Canal Streets in 1881, when the precinct house opened. This was the Sixth Ward, a rough and tumble immigrant enclave on the border of Five Points, Manhattan’s notorious 19th century slum district.

The neighborhood may have changed. But one thing remains: the green lanterns flanking the front door. (Above, in 2020, and below, a different set of lanterns in 1900)

It’s one feature every precinct house has in common. The tradition of the green lanterns harkens back to the city of the 17th century, before a professional police department was formed in 1845.

What constituted a police force in the mid-1600s was a group of watchmen formed a “rattle watch” that would patrol the streets at night, rattling keys and carrying a green lantern on a pole, wrote Bruce Chadwick in Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD.

(Some sources say the rattle watch carried actual wood rattles, but whatever they carried, the point was to scare off troublemakers by making noise.)

“When they returned to their watch house, they put the lantern outside it; this is why all old precinct houses in the city today have green lanterns beside their front entrances.”

[Third photo: NYPL]

A Lower East Side artist who painted the city

January 6, 2020

You might not know of Samuel Halpert, who was born in Bialystok, Russia (now Poland) and moved with his family to live among other Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1890 when he was five years old.

[“The Flatiron Building,” 1919]

But you’ll recognize the New York City he painted in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of his subjects—new skyscrapers, steel bridges—foretold that the 20th century would be big and bold.

Other subjects, such as the East River waterfront, downtown neighborhoods, and the poetic view from tenement rooftops, were more intimate glimpses of the moods of the modern city.

[“Sheridan Square, New York,” 1920]

Halpert’s art education consisted of classes at neighborhood settlement houses, then the National Academy of Design as well as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, and also painted figures, interior scenes, and murals (for the money, according to a biography from the Spellman Gallery).

[“Downtown,” 1922]

But perhaps the New York he came of age in was his main inspiration and most popular subject matter—which he took on in a style that blended Post-Impressionism and Fauvism (in the style of “wild beasts,” according to one source).

[“City View,” date unknown]

Halpert’s talent was immense, and he attracted attention. But his life was brief. He moved between New York and Paris in the teens, came back to New York for a spell, then took a teaching job at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit in 1926.

[“A View of the Brooklyn Bridge,” date unknown]

Halpert died in 1930. While his name is mostly forgotten, his colorful, sometimes dynamic and sometimes somber paintings remain…and deserve a wider audience.

Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film

December 9, 2019

In 1955—before the shutdown of the Third Avenue El between Chatham Square and East 149th Street in the Bronx—a filmmaker named Carson Davidson took his camera up to a lonely platform and into one of the mostly empty trains.

With just weeks to go before the train and this main portion of the elevated would be trucked to the scrapyard, Davidson and a group of actors shot a haunting Impressionist short film.

The El may have been destined for the wrecking ball, yet Davidson’s film brings it alive—the iron spine of a city snaking between the tenements of Lower and Upper Manhattan and then over the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.

The voiceless characters feel familiar, but they’re not cliches. A man sleeps, a couple plays cards. A stumblebum gets on near the Bowery and tries to wring one last drop out of a bottle of liquor. A little girl excitedly takes a seat.

Out the train windows we see the geometrical shadows of the railings on platforms. The camera turns to the train itself, a metal machine screeching and lurching high above sidewalks while a harpsichord plays as a soundtrack.

During the ride Davidson captures a street cleaner, faded ads, puddles on paving stones, the Chrysler Building, laundry lines, the Harlem River, and a tugboat belching smoke as a swing bridge aligns itself so the train can keep going.

The Third Avenue El threads the characters’ stories, as does a coin caught in the floor of the train car. Each character tries and fails to grab it.

Finally at night, a young couple boards. Amid glimpses of a Horn and Hardart Automat sign and a movie marquee, the male half of  the couple picks up and pockets the coin.

A director and artist I know had this to add about Davidson’s Oscar-nominated short:

“Although the filmmaker is fascinated with mechanics and shapes, it is always softened by humanity, the sympathetic characters. It’s literally a day in the life of the El which ends, after all those geometrically composed images, romantically with the lovers getting the coin.”

A relic of a downtown “apartment for rent” sign

December 9, 2019

In a city that practically requires renters to fork over thousands of dollars to a real estate broker just to sign an apartment lease, you don’t see too many “apartment for rent” signs nailed to building entrances.

But “to let” or “to rent” signs used to be a lot more common—like this one, which Ephemeral reader Ellen G. shared with me this week.

The sign was for sale on eBay, and the description says it’s from the 1930s.

It’s certainly pre-1960s, as it has the wonderful old two-letter telephone exchange that was replaced by digits in the 1960s. Drydock is the name of a small street in the East Village near Avenue D and 10th Street, a leftover of what was once the Drydock District. (Oddly, Drydock isn’t anywhere near One Spring Street, which is at Bowery.)

This isn’t the only Zacarro real estate relic. I’m not sure if it’s still visible, but a faded ad for P. Zaccaro’s real estate business used to be up on the side of a building on Delancey Street (above).

Who was P. Zaccaro? He was the father-in-law of former New York City congresswoman and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

[Thank you Ellen G. for sharing this sign!]

The faded ghost sign for a Ludlow Street grocery

September 23, 2019

55 Ludlow Street blends right into the Lower East Side streetscape.

It’s a six-story building between Hester and Grand that probably started out as a brick tenement in the late 19th or early 20th century before getting an upgrade that smoothed out the facade and front windows.

Photos over the past few years show the first floor commercial space covered in graffiti, with no apparent occupant in place.

But one turn-of-the-century feature remains: the very faded phantom outline of a sign, “wholesale grocers,” above the first-floor entrance.

So who were these wholesale grocers, and when did they run their business?

It could have been the sign for Bernstein & Wolfson, a wholesale grocery founded by Morris H. Bernstein, 44, described in his 1916 New York Times obituary as “the mayor of the East Side” and head of one of the largest groceries in the area.

“He lived at [illegible] Orchard Street, and his death is said to be hastened by his active preparations for the celebration of his 20th year as a grocer on the East Side, which was to have taken place in Webster Hall on March 25,” wrote the Times.

A grocer’s directory from 1917 continued to categorize Bernstein as the “strictly wholesale” grocer at 55 Ludlow Street.

Bernstein & Wolfson didn’t appear to last much longer. By 1919, the New York Herald reported that the entire building at 55 Ludlow Street was leased to a candy company.

Here it is in a 1940 Department of Records tax photo…looking not far off from the way it looks today. Special thanks to Robert G. for spotting this ghost sign and taking the photos!

[Fourth photo: NYC Department of Records Tax Photo]

The first New York tenement is on Mott Street

August 12, 2019

The orange building in the middle of the photo below, 65 Mott Street, looks like an ordinary Manhattan tenement.

It lacks a cornice, sure, and a renovation at some point in its history has erased any ornamental features on the facade. But that’s no different to countless other 19th century tenements across the city.

Aside from this, you’d never know that this walkup has one distinction that makes it different from its neighbors.

65 Mott Street “was apparently the very first New York building built specifically to serve as a tenement,” wrote historian Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points—his study of the horrific slum neighborhood this stretch of Mott Street used to be part of.

“Historians have generally cited a building erected on the Lower East Side in 1833 by iron manufacturer James P. Allaire as the city’s first designed tenement…” Anbinder wrote. “But the building at 65 Mott almost certainly predates Allaire’s structure by nearly a decade.”

Anbinder noted that an article in an 1879 trade journal stated that 65 Mott had been occupied for 55 years, which means the tenement was constructed in 1824.

“Its seven stories—a height then unprecedented for a dwelling place—dwarfed the surrounding wooden two-story homes and must have made quite a spectacle when it was first built.”

Tenements, of course, are a New York City invention.

Short for tenant houses, tenements started out as subdivided single-family homes or back houses meant for the city’s growing working-class and poor city residents. (Above, Mott Street in 1911, lined with similar tenements.)

As the city’s population boomed in the first half of the 19th century, unscrupulous builders began constructing substandard multi-family dwellings, knowing they could find plenty of desperate people willing to live in them even thought they lacked basic amenities like natural light and fresh air.

“Tenements built specifically for housing the poor originated at some time between 1820 and 1850….By the end of the Civil War, ‘tenement’ was a term for housing for the urban poor, with well-established connotations for unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” according to NYPL.

From 1868 to 1901, the city enacted a secession of laws mandating that tenements be outfitted with safety features like fire escapes, indoor plumbing, and windows in every room.

Without photos, it’s hard to know when 65 Mott Street was updated and modernized so it looks like any other New York tenement.

A peek inside shows the same kind of tile design in the hallway so common in other late 19th century tenements. Anbinder estimated that the building probably had at least 34 two-room apartments in this 2450-square-foot property.

I wonder if any of the apartments still have bathtubs in the kitchen, or “tuberculosis windows” in the rooms.

[Third photo: George Bain Collection/LOC]

Which “East River Park” is in this 1902 painting?

August 5, 2019

When William Glackens painted “East River Park” in 1902—contrasting the serenity of a city green space with the noisy industrial riverfront—the park that currently stretches along the riverfront called East River Park had yet to be created.

So what East River park did he depict here? Perhaps Corlears Hook Park, at the bend where Manhattan tucks under itself between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges?

This was certainly a smoggy, ship-choked channel at the turn of the last century. The city purchased land here in the 1880s for the creation of a park, completed in 1905.

Neighboring East River Park didn’t exist until the 1930s, and according to the Brooklyn Museum, which owns the painting, a label on it indicates that the Brooklyn waterfront is depicted.

Or maybe his “East River Park” (closeup of the women and girl above) was farther upriver in Yorkville at today’s Carl Schurz Park—with a view of the factories and ship traffic of Hell Gate and Queens?

“The southern portion of the park was set aside by the City as East River Park in 1876,” according to NYC Parks. “The former Gracie estate was added in 1891 and a new landscape design by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons was completed in 1902.”