Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

The anti-slavery past of a Bowery house built in the 1790s

June 14, 2021

Numbers 134 and 136 Bowery, between Broome and Grand Streets, look like they were designed to be twins.

Both houses were constructed when the Bowery was a fashionable address north of the city center. Each reflects the Federal style that was in vogue at the turn of the 19th century—with dormer windows, steep roofs, and Flemish-bond brickwork.

But 134 Bowery (on the left) has the edge when it comes to New York history. This 3-story house dates back to the 1790s, making it one of the oldest houses still extant in Manhattan. Number 136 is old by Gotham standards, but it didn’t go up until 1828, according to the Bowery Alliance.

Sources vary on who built the houses, but one or both were constructed and occupied by Samuel Delaplaine and his family. Delaplaine, a Quaker, was an outspoken member of the city’s nascent abolitionist movement.

“…may servitude abolish’d be, As well as Negro-Slavery, To make one LAND of LIBERTY!” read a manifesto Delaplaine reportedly wrote in 1793, according to The Historical Markers Database. (Below, 134-136 Bowery two doors down from the bank building on the left in 1910.)

Delaplaine’s ancestors made their wealth as merchants. “The Delaplaines were descendants of a Huguenot refugee who landed in New Amsterdam after fleeing France,” states Alice Sparberg Alexiou in her book, Devil’s Mile: the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery.

His Quaker faith may have spurred on his opposition to slavery, which was legal in New York City until 1799, when the first of a series of gradual emancipation laws were enacted. (New York state fully abolished slavery in 1827.)

In 1795, he donated the land for St. Philips Church, New York’s first black Episcopal church, notes Alexiou, which originally stood on Centre Street. He also donated plots he owned on Chrystie and Rivington Streets for a cemetery for black New Yorkers, who made up about 20 percent of the city’s population the time.

“Delaplaine was one of a group of ‘diverse, well-disposed individuals,’ as described by the Common Council, who were well-disposed to the ‘African society’ (‘free people of color’) for a Negroes’ cemetery,” Alexiou wrote.

Delaplaine’s descendants were also active in the abolitionist movement, which became stronger in antebellum New York. “Booksellers and circulating libraries published and distributed anti-slavery literature in these buildings, which also served as boarding houses and possible fugitive-slave safe houses in the 1830s to the 1860s,” states the Bowery Alliance.

After the Civil War, 134 Bowery became one of the first YMCAs located on the Bowery. “Partnering with the New York Mission Society, a reading room and the Carmel Chapel were opened, and food, lodgings, and baths were provided to ‘all persons, without respect to country, creed, color, sex, or age,” per the Alliance.

While both houses have long had commercial tenants on the ground floor, their link to abolition can hopefully save them from the wrecking ball.

“The historic houses at 134-136 Bowery are now documented to be significantly associated with the anti-slavery movement beginning at the end of the 18th century,” wrote Mitchell Grubler at Place Matters. “They meet the established qualifications to be deemed of most important historic value through documented connections.”

[Third image: Library of Congress]

The two most romantic street names in old Manhattan

May 17, 2021

New York has always been a city that encourages love and passion, with plenty of lush parks, quiet corners, and candlelit cafes lending privacy and romantic ambiance.

Couples living in 18th and early 19th century Manhattan didn’t have these places at their disposal when they wanted some alone time, of course. But they did have options—like the two now-defunct streets named “Love Lane.”

The first Love Lane began at the foot of the Bowery, called Bowry Lane on John Montresor’s 1775 map (above, and in full via this link). This map laid out the small city center at the tip of Manhattan and along the East River.

Love Lane off the Bowery (referenced in an 1818 New-York Evening Post ad, above) was a “road on the Rutgers Farm, running on or near the line of the present Henry Street,” states oldstreets.com, a site that explains the history of city street names.

Thomas Allibone Janvier’s In Old New York, published in 1893, mentions this “primitive” Love Lane, which he also places on the former Rutgers Estate near present-day Chatham Square. Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, from 1922, states that Love Lane was the original name for today’s East Broadway; it was a lane that led to the Rutgers Farm.

Exactly what colonial-era New Yorkers did on the Love Lane of the Rutgers Estate wasn’t specifically recorded by these authors. But we do have a better idea of what lovers (or would-be lovers) did on the city’s other Love Lane—which ran along West 21st Street in today’s Chelsea. Apparently, they went for long, secluded carriage drives.

“Before this area became incorporated into an expanding New York City, 21st Street was a rural lane known as the Abingdon Road, which connected Broadway with Fitzroy Road, as 8th Avenue was then called,” explains nysonglines.com.

“Abingdon was nicknamed Love Lane, because carriage rides out to the country (i.e. Midtown) were apparently the main form of dating, and coming back by Abingdon was taking the long way home.”

Different sources have Chelsea’s Love Lane taking various routes. But it seems to have begun at Broadway (then called Bloomingdale Road) and followed 21st Street west before intersecting with Fitz Roy Road, following today’s 22nd to 23rd Street, and running to Tenth Avenue beside the Hudson River.

“There is no record to show where the name came from,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in Nooks and Corners of Old New York. “The generally accepted idea is that being a quiet and little traveled spot, it was looked upon as a lane where happy couples might drive, far from the city, and amid green fields and stately trees confide the story of their loves.”

Valentine’s Manual agrees that this Love Lane followed Abington Road up the West Side to Fitz Roy and 21st Street, but has it turning east to Third Avenue and 23rd Street.

Chelsea’s Love Lane (above, in an 1807 map by William Bridges and Peter Maverick) was “swallowed up,” Hemstreet wrote in 1899, with the opening of West 21st Street in 1827.

Both of these Love Lanes have long disappeared from the urbanscape. But if you’re wishing you could live on a street with such a romantic name, head on over to Brooklyn.

Love Lane, a sweet one-block former mews in Brooklyn Heights, is quiet, tucked out of the way, and intimate. How this street got its name is something of a mystery, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explores in a 2019 article. It may have been a romantic path down to the East River; it could have something to do with the women’s college once located around the corner.

[Top image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; second image: New-York Evening Post; third image: unknown; fourth image: New-York Evening Post; fifth Image: NYPL]

Look hard to see this vintage Hershey’s sign on the Bowery

April 25, 2021

You might need a pair of readers to really see the Hershey’s brand name in this weathered sign hanging from the facade of 354 Bowery, between East Third and Fourth Streets.

But there it is embossed on both sides, advertising Hershey’s Ice Cream—which despite the similar lettering apparently has nothing to do with Hershey’s Chocolate.

How long has the sign been there? No earlier than 1940, as it doesn’t appear in the tax photo from that year archived by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. This stretch of the Bowery back then was all hardware stores, sign makers, and a low-rent hotel called the Gotham.

However old it is, this it’s a charming relic of a time when the Bowery made room for a deli or luncheonette with ice cream on the menu. It might qualify as a “privilege” sign—a store sign featuring a brand’s name and logo, and typically the name of the store. The store owners didn’t have to pay for the sign because it was free advertising for the brand.

To see a clearer image of the sign, visit the Facebook group Ghost Signs—this snap was taken by Tori Terazzi back in January.

What an artist captured on 1950s Orchard Street

April 19, 2021

When Joseph Sherly Sheppard painted these three scenes of Orchard Street in the 1950s, this eight-block stretch of the Lower East Side was devoted to cut-rate commerce.

Unglamorous tenement storefronts jockey for space, merchandise spills onto the sidewalk, and sign after colorful sign advertised such utilitarian items like coats, linens, eyeglasses, and hosiery.

Orchard in the 1950s seems emptier than it had been in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was a packed Jewish immigrant enclave.

Commerce continues to reign on Orchard today, and some blocks still have the feel of a mid-20th century flashback.

But like so much of today’s Lower East Side, this old city street (named for the orchards that once graced the 18th century DeLancey estate) is glammed up with new condos, restaurants, and trendier, higher-end stores. Older ladies carrying bulging shopping bags are a rarer sight these days.

Born in Maryland in 1930, Sheppard has had a long career as a realist painter. He painted unique scenes of humanity, from sunbathers to circus performers to grape pickers. Most of his work depicts places other than New York City. But something drew him to Orchard Street.

Sheppard once again painted Orchard Street in 1982: it’s a scene outside a clothing store that displays its wares like an open-air market.

The 1982 painting is similar to those from the 1950s (the “I Love NY” shirt confirms its era): clothes hang over the sidewalk, pedestrians and delivery people go about their business, and the occasional curious customer contemplates a deal.

[First and second images: Artnet.com; third image: Invaluable.com; fourth image: Artnet.com]

Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

March 22, 2021

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

A ghost sign for a family business on Essex Street

March 15, 2021

Back in 2010, a lounge and restaurant called Beauty & Essex opened in a cavernous space at 146 Essex Street—a glittery addition to Lower East Side nightlife back when the neighborhood still had a grittier edge.

Beauty & Essex is temporarily closed, according to Yelp. But there’s another reason to do a walk-by at this address: to see the faded ghost sign that still remains on the facade decades after it went up in the 1960s.

This spot used to be the home base of M. Katz & Sons Fine Furniture—a business founded in 1906 out of a Lower East Side tenement by Meilich Katz, according to the store website. In the 1930s, M. Katz’s sons opened a shop on Stanton Street, and by the late 1960s, a third generation relocated to 146 Essex Street (below, an undated photo of the Essex Street sign).

M. Katz’s still sells furniture; a fifth generation of the Katz family occupies a smaller space on Orchard Street these days. The facade on Essex Street is a palimpsest of a century-old family business still bearing the founder’s name.

[Second photo: Yellowbot]

Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery

March 15, 2021

After spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of fashion.

In New York, Abbott “was unable to secure space at galleries, have her work shown at museums, or continue the working relationships she had forged with a number of magazine publications,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lucky for Abbott—and for fans of her unromanticized images that speak for themselves—the Federal Art Project came calling. In 1935, it gave her the means to photograph the streets, buildings, and people of New York City. More than 300 resulting images were collected in Changing New York, published in 1939.

Though Abbott aimed her camera all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, she was especially drawn to the Lower East Side, specifically the Bowery. At the time, the Bowery was a “Victorian entertainment district turned skid row, which she likened to ‘wandering through hell,'” according to the text of a 1997 edition of the book by the Museum of the City of New York.

Retracing Abbott’s steps through the Bowery, as documented in Changing New York, is possible today because she kept track of the addresses of the three storefronts she captured.

The top photo, at 103 Bowery, might be one of Abbott’s most famous New York images. This “hash house,” as the Blossom Restaurant was known per the MCNY’s Changing New York, occupied the ground floor while Jimmy the Barber worked out of the basement. The two men in the shot have the harsh expressions expected of men who catered to Bowery bums.

Below it is the storefront today. It’s still a food establishment, but the space has been remodeled. The aura of danger and depression are gone.

The striking storefront—and colorful claims designed to lure men of few means—of the Tri-Boro Barber School (“world’s most up-to-date system”) probably appealed to Abbott. The school was at 264 Bowery, which was lined with barber shops at the time, states the MCNY’s updated Changing New York: “Upon completion of a 10-week course, a student was a ‘full-fledged professional barber’ and could find a job at a starting union wage of $22.50 per week.” Below it is 264 Bowery now, with its similar doorway but ghostly, empty space.

This hardware store at 316-318 Bowery has the crammed feel of a dollar store, proving that the tradition of an overload of seasonal merchandise and lots of sale signs lives on in 21st century New York. “Hardware emporiums, catering to tradesmen from all over the city and day laborers who lived nearby, flourished on the Bowery,” states the MCNY’s Changing New York. The storefront today appears to be another COVID casualty.

Would Abbott be as drawn to the Bowery of 2021 as she was to the Bowery of the 1930s (above, under the elevated at Division Street and Bowery)?

Probably not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many other Manhattan streets of the 21st century—lacking the signs of desperate humanity Abbott was attracted to.

[Top photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History; third photo: Artnet; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MutualArt]

The most beautiful police station in Manhattan

February 15, 2021

The old NYPD headquarters on Centre Street is pretty spectacular. And I’m a fan of the understated elegance of the Fifth Precinct on Elizabeth Street.

But when it comes to regular precinct houses, I have to go with the 19th precinct station at 153 East 67th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues) as the loveliest in New York City.

Completed in 1887, it’s a blended confection of different late 19th century styles. The AIA Guide describes it as a “Victorian palazzo: brownstone and red brick borrowing heavily from the Florentine Renaissance. The rusticated base supports a mannered Victorian body.”

It’s not the only piece of Gilded Age eye candy on the block. On its left is the former Mt. Sinai Dispensary; on the right is a firehouse designed by preeminent architect Napoleon Le Brun in 1886. On the other side of the firehouse is the Park East Synagogue, dating back to 1890. “A wild, vigorous extravaganza,” the AIA Guide calls it.

The police station has one extra wonderful touch: the green lanterns on either side of the entrance, a nod all city police stations have to acknowledge the early police force in New Amsterdam that kept watch on the streets with a green lantern on a pole guiding the way.

A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

The colonial city’s most romantic ‘kissing bridge’

February 1, 2021

Manhattan in the 1700s was mostly bucolic countryside, thick with woods and swamps and crossed by brooks outside the small downtown city center.

To get across these brooks, residents of the island’s villages and far-apart estates built small wooden bridges. Perhaps because some of these bridges were in secluded spots that inspired romance, at least three became known into the 19th century as “kissing bridges.”

On these bridges, couples could enjoy a little PDA…and they were encouraged by custom (or bound by tradition) to indulge in a little lip action.

“In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from the city, which you always pass over as you return, called the ‘Kissing-Bridge,’ where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection,” wrote Rev. Andrew Burnaby of the UK, who visited New York in the summer of 1760.

One of these kissing bridges spanned Old Wreck Brook (you have to love these colonial-era names, right?) at today’s Park Row and now-defunct Roosevelt Street. Details about this kissing bridge have been hard to uncover, but it did inspire this 1920 poem.

Another kissing bridge occupied East 77th Street and Third Avenue, about four miles from the city on the edge of Jones Wood. It crossed the Sawkill River near Boston Post Road, according to the New York Times in 2006.

But the kissing bridge that inspired old New York memoirists (and appears to be the one Burnaby wrote about) is the bridge that spanned the Sawkill River (or Turtle Creek, according to one historian) at today’s Second Avenue and 50th or 52nd Street. This was on the farm owned by the DeVoor family, stated Charles Hemstreet in When Old New York Was Young.

“And at the crossing of the waterway and the roadway…there was a bridge over which the road led and under which the stream flowed,” wrote Hemstreet. “This was called the ‘Kissing Bridge’, and it was not the first bridge of the kind on the island, nor was it the last. Twice more on other places a road crossed a stream; and there, too, was a Kissing Bridge.”

The heyday of this kissing bridge was in the 1760s Hemstreet explained, and the name “was gotten from an old Danish custom, giving to any gentleman crossing such a bridge, not only the privilege, but the right of kissing the lady who chanced to be by his side.”

It’s unclear when this and the other two kissing bridges met their end. But the one in today’s Turtle Bay survived the longest. Valentine’s Manual published an illustration of the kissing bridge in 1860 titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge on the Old Boston Road, 50th & Second Ave.”

If only one of these bridges made it to the 21st century—what an appropriate place for New York couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

[Top image: The American Magazine, 1882; second and fourth images: NYPL; third and fifth images: Ballads of Old New York]