Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

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.”

The Grand Street bus cruising 1970s New York

June 24, 2019

This is Park Row and Broadway in 1972. John Lindsay was the New York’s mayor; that year, he launched a short-lived quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Transit strikes, teacher strikes, and a sanitation workers’ walkout in the 1960s continued to cripple the 1970s city. By the end of the decade, almost a million people had left Gotham and resettled elsewhere.

But New York kept going, just like this “fishbowl” style bus is doing—cruising its way downtown back to Grand Street. The photo was taken by Joe Testagore and is part of a large collection of vintage transit photos at the wonderful nycsubway.com website.

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]