Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

The 1820s organization formed to improve the character of New York servants

November 28, 2022

Working as a domestic servant in 19th century New York City had plenty of challenges.

Sure, servants received room and board in addition to their wages, and they usually had at least Sunday afternoon off. But living in another family’s home was isolating and lonely—particularly if you didn’t speak English or weren’t accustomed to urban life.

The work could be physically difficult, too. Climbing up and down staircases carrying wood or coal for fireplaces, airing out heavy bed linens every morning, wringing wet laundry, and scrubbing pots and pans…day after day, this was true labor.

So it’s hardly surprising that the families who hired servants often had a hard time keeping them. In the late 19th century, the problem of finding and maintaining hard-working, loyal servants was summed up as “the servant question,” or more appropriately, “the servant girl question,” since most maids, cooks, and other servants were overwhelmingly young and female.

Wealthy Gilded Age wives often discussed the servant girl question among themselves. But employers in the early 19th century turned to another resource: a newly formed organization that tried to guide servants to have better character and morals, and to not change families so often.

Called the Society for the Encouragement of Faithful Domestic Servants, this wonderfully named organization officially formed in New York City in 1826. The Society took its inspiration from a similar group in London, known as “The Society for Improving the Character and Usefulness of Domestic Servants,” according to the group’s first annual report.

The name of the London group better sums up much of what the New York chapter was all about. “No one can be ignorant, at least no house-keeper needs to be told, that we are very dependent upon our Domestic Servants for a large share of our daily comforts,” the report began.

“Indeed, it may be safely asserted, that if all the other arrangements and connexions of a family are as happy as fall generally to the lot of humanity, bad Servants are alone sufficient, if not to destroy, at least to mar, much of the calm happiness of domestic life.”

The report called out the tendency of servants to have a “love of incessant change,” in other words, moving on to another servant job or different type of work. “This restlessness of mind, and love of change, is especially true of the young and unwary female servant,” the report stated.

By changing employment, they “become impatient of control, or of advice, negligent of their duty, and, after wandering from place to place, deteriorating at every change, they not infrequently end their days in the miserable haunts of vice.”

The group advised employers how to manage their servants, and they also acted as an employment agency, matching qualified servants to households that needed them. This appears to be a crucial part of the group’s mission, as the “rapid growth of our city” has made it difficult to find enough people willing to do servant work.

[Fourth floor maids’ room at the Merchant House Museum]

They also awarded bonus money to faithful servants—from $3 to $10, depending on how long the servant stayed with their employer. (After one year of faithful service, servants were awarded a bible.)

For such a mission-oriented group, the Society didn’t last very long. By 1830, the organization dissolved, according to Leslie Harris’ In the Shadow of Slavery—noting that the group’s founding in 1826 coincided with the end of slavery in New York in 1827 as well as the first great wave of Irish immigrants, who typically took positions in domestic service.

What took the place of the Society when it came to guide servants and their employers? No one specific organization, it seems. No wonder servant issues escalated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

[Top image: MCNY, 1847: 56.300.1320; second image: Google; third image: MCNY, 1890: 45.335.21]

The Feast of San Gennaro festival, painted by a Little Italy artist

September 19, 2022

Born in 1914 in the Bronx and raised in Greenwich Village’s Little Italy, Ralph Fasanella became a union organizer, a gas station owner, and a self-taught painter of colorful, carnival-like panoramas depicting New York City at work and at play.

“San Gennaro,” is his 1976 take on the annual festival held every September on Mulberry Street since 1926. (The festival is going on in New York right now, through September 26.)

Fasanella’s work is a folk art-inspired, social realist vision of the crowds, vendors, food, games, and patron saint of Naples himself in the center of the canvas, surrounded by Little Italy’s tenements and the tenement dwellers who inhabit them. It’s also currently up for auction; 1stdibs has the info.


This empty shell on Delancey Street was once a movie palace

September 19, 2022

It’s a forbidding warehouse of a building, with its ground floor carved up decades ago into unattractive (and since the pandemic, often empty) commercial outlets.

But a closer look at this mystery space on the corner of Delancey and Suffolk Streets offers clues about what it used to be in its glory days: the few strangely spaced windows (now filled with concrete), the Art Deco-style ribbon of ornamentation near the roofline that hints at something imaginative and exciting.

The grim fortress at 140-146 Delancey Street is the remains of Loew’s Delancey Street Theater—a vaudeville theater and then movie house opened in 1912 that was “a cornerstone of life on New York’s Lower East Side,” according to Cinema Treasures, a website that tracks defunct theaters across the U.S.

The Loew’s Delancey in 1936

The Loew’s Delancey, with about 1,700 seats, occupied the block with another legendary business: Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, per Cinema Treasures. It was one of over 40 Loews theaters in the New York area at the time, states the 2007 book Jews and American Popular Culture.

In its earliest days, the theater reportedly booked vaudeville acts and showed short films between them; a 1929 Brooklyn Eagle article notes an act that took first prize on amateur night. But by the 1930s, the Delancey was exclusively a movie house, as images of the the old-school marquee attests (My American Wife!).

Another view of that magical sign and marquee, 1939-1941

The end of the Delancey echos the end of so many popular, thriving businesses on the Lower East Side after the first half of the 20th century—with a mass exodus of people to the suburbs following World War II, then the decline of the surrounding neighborhood, explains Cinema Treasures.

By 1977, the theater was closed. Though a sign on the facade says that “corner stores and upper floors” are available for rent, the space remains empty—the interior likely gutted of any old movie house magic.

The end of the Delancey, 1978

A new theater has opened across Delancey called the Regal Essex Crossing. Too bad it lacks the enchantment of the former Delancey, with its three-story vertical sign and blazing marquee inviting the public inside to watch a “picture,” as they called it, that you could only see on the big screen.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services; Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY, 2013.3.2.2183]

The hidden beauty of these blocked-off fanlight windows in Chinatown

September 12, 2022

New York’s intact 19th century residences—especially the Federal-style, early 1800s row houses that still survive in Lower Manhattan, but also early tenement buildings—often have a fanlight window above the front door.

The name comes from the shape of the glass panes, which resemble a hand-held fan. It’s a design feature that allows light to flood a front room, which might be why it’s also referred to sometimes as a sunburst window.

This 1820s house at 105 Mercer Street offers an example of a fanlight window, in all its early 19th century beauty (not pictured in the post; click the link to see).

Whatever you want to call them, it’s disheartening to spot these windows over the entrances of some of Manhattan’s oldest tenements on densely packed residential streets…and see that the glass has been painted over or replaced by wood or another solid material, allowing no light to get through.

Above and below, a painted-over fanlight at 115 Eldridge Street:

These blocked-off fanlight windows were found on a Chinatown block. I wouldn’t expect landlords to spend time and money scraping away paint from windows or replacing the glass when a building might have bigger issues to contend with. But what a shame these windows meant to let sunlight through are instead cutting it off.

The Lower East Side’s Division Street: What exactly did it divide?

September 5, 2022

The Dutch burghers who settled in New Amsterdam and the British colonists who ruled after them had one thing in common: they gave straightforward names to Gotham’s earliest streets.

Wall Street was named for the defensive wall put up by the worried residents of New Amsterdam, who feared their settlement would be attacked by the English. Piles of glistening oyster shells found beside the 17th century waterfront gave way to Pearl Street. A drainage ditch dug in the early 1800s became Canal Street once it was filled.

And then there’s Division Street—an east-west road in that traffic-choked Lower East Side near the Manhattan Bridge approach. Division runs from the Bowery to Canal Street, where it makes a sharp upward turn and becomes Ludlow Street, which runs north-south.

The Delancey estate in 1776, with Division Street marking the boundary of the Rutgers farm.

Clearly Division Street served as a dividing line of sorts in the colonial city. But for what, exactly?

The answer lies in the bucolic New York of the 18th century, when much of British-controlled Manhattan was carved up into farms and estates. To the north of Division Street was the Delancey estate, and to the south stood the Rutgers farm.

The Rutgers mansion on the Rutgers farm

“The space occupied by the street was a kind of no-man’s-land used for a rope walk, i.e., a place where hemp was twisted into rope,” explains Henry Mosco’s The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins.

An 18th century map of the Delancey estate street grid, with the Rutgers farm below.

Delancey was James De Lancey, whose 339-acre estate encompassed land east of the Bowery and north to Houston Street, according to He’s also the namesake of today’s Delancey Street, not far to the north. His family, French Huguenots whose presence in the city began in the late 17th century, were rich merchants.

Delancey was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War. After the defeat of the British he fled the city, leaving behind his estate, which he had already been laid out into streets. The streets mostly stayed, but the former estate was sold in lots, per

Henry Rutgers, early 19th century

Rutgers was Henry Rutgers, a descendant of prominent Dutch families who came to New Amsterdam in the 17th century and made their money as brewers. The farm he inherited spanned southeastern Manhattan from about Chatham Square to the East River. He’s the Rutgers of Rutgers University and also Rutgers Street, on his former estate.

Rutgers also divided his farm into separate lots as early as 1755, according to an article by David J. Fowler in a Rutgers University publication, “Benevolent Patriot: Henry Rutgers, 1745-1830.” For decades, the land “maintained a rural character of hills, fields, gardens, woods, and marshes,” the article states.

The Rutgers farm, already laid out and divided into streets in 1784.

Unlike his neighbor, Rutgers supported American independence and served as an army captain and colonel. A bachelor, he remained in New York City for the rest of his life, giving away some of his land for charitable causes. By the end of the 19th century, the once beautiful Rutgers farm had almost fully transformed into blocks of tenements, according to a New York Times article from 1913.

With the farms gone, Division Street isn’t the boundary line for anything. But like Rutgers Street, Delancey Street, and numerous other thoroughfares named for the estates and estate holders of the colonial era, it’s a street name reminder of a New York that’s slipped into history.

[Second image: Norman B. Levanthal Map Center Collection/Boston Public Library; third, fourth, and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collections; fifth image: Oil painting by Henry Inman/Wikipedia]

All the different business districts of Manhattan, according to a 1939 magazine

August 29, 2022

The center of finance is still firmly in Lower Manhattan, and the Theater District continues to surround Broadway in the West 40s.

But these two commercial districts are all that remain in 2022 of the many business and industry centers that used to thrive in different sections of Manhattan. The commercial districts and map were outlined in a July 1939 issue of Fortune, published to coincide with the World’s Fair that summer in New York City.

Fresh fish is still an industry in today’s New York. But the wholesale markets are no longer centered at South Street; a new Fulton Fish Market was relocated to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005. I’m sure you can still find fresh produce on what was once called the Lower West Side, but today’s Tribeca is no longer the produce market neighborhood it used to be.

Selling fish on South Street, photographed by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune

The Flower District, on Sixth Avenue in the West 20s, still has a few holdout wholesalers. Garments continue to be manufactured in the Garment District, but the output is nothing like it was in the 1930s, when this area from Sixth to Ninth Avenues between 34th and 40th Streets was home to the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world, per the Gotham Center for New York City History.

A nursery in the Flower District, by Rolf Tietgens for Fortune magazine

Automobile showrooms have long left West 57th Street near Columbus Circle. The arrow that says “meat” pointing to Midtown East (where the United Nations headquarters is today) referred to the former Abattoir Center—one of two slaughterhouse districts designated by the city in 1898, according to Tudor City Confidential. (The other slaughterhouse district was on West 14th Street.)

The East Side Abattoir Center, by Alexander Alland for Fortune magazine

A leather district on the Lower East Side? That’s news to me. “Art” and “style” just below Central Park seem to refer to the luxury department stores and fashion boutiques, as well as the art galleries and art-related showrooms, on 57th-59th Streets.

[Images: Fortune, July 1939]

Spotting a Bowery street sign carved into a Lower East Side building

August 22, 2022

If you often walk through New York City’s older neighborhoods—and you tend to look up at the buildings before you—then you’ve probably seen them: faded, weathered street names carved into the corners of tenements and walkups.

They’re charming finds when you come across them, these now-obsolete address markers. But they also served a function.

In an earlier city that didn’t have official street signage on every corner (especially in narrow, crowded neighborhoods downtown), these carvings let people know exactly where they were. I’ve also heard that because some could be seen from elevated trains, they informed riders of their location as the train lurched up or down to its destination.

Recently I chanced upon a pair of street addresses I’d never seen before. At the corner of Bowery and Madison Street, there they were: two street names on either side of a Flatiron-shaped building, faded from the elements but still visible.

More examples of these street name carvings can be found here as well as here.

The mystery of the shuttered Italian restaurant with a wonderful vintage store sign

August 15, 2022

Cicciaro’s Italian Restaurante (their spelling, not mine) looks like it’s been closed for ages, the steel grates over the small storefront locked shut and layered with graffiti.

I couldn’t find any clues about this literal hole in the wall at 47 Market Street, which still occupies the ground floor of a tenement built in 1886, and is next door to a former boarding stable for horses that operated in the 1890s.

But thanks to Ephemeral readers, I now know that this authentic-looking Italian spot and its spot-on 1970s-ish sign is actually a fake—it’s a creation for a TV crime drama film set.

City on Fire should be on Apple TV at some point in the near future. The production crew did a nice job, the old-school sign fooled me!

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]