Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

All the ways to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903

September 21, 2020

Here we are at Brooklyn Terminal in 1903, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge known as the “East River Bridge” during its long construction.

To cross the bridge, you had options. Taking a trolley car was one method; a horse-drawn cart was another. And of course, walking was a possibility. By 1903, it was free to be a pedestrian on the bridge, but when the span opened in 1883, the fee to walk was one cent!

What, no bike lane yet?

[MCNY F2011.33.1886]

The sordid past of the East Village’s Extra Place

September 14, 2020

The downtown alleys of old New York tended to be unsavory. So it’s not exactly a surprise that the East Village alley called Extra Place experienced its share of the social ills of the 19th century city.

Gangs, domestic violence, fires, and disease all touched this obscure dead end off First Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue, a look through various newspaper archives shows.

How Extra Place got its name is a bit of a mystery. But Forgotten New York has it that the street dates back to 1800, when a landowner named Philip Minthorne divvied up his 110-acre farm equally among his children. A small “extra” piece of land was left over.

Extra Place may have been a respectable, more middle class place to live at first, just like the surrounding neighborhood. New York newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s contain ads from Extra Place addresses looking for chambermaids and other household workers.

 By the 1880s, Extra Place was making headlines. The story of two Extra Place residents who stabbed and billy clubbed each other at 2 a.m. one night appeared in the major papers the next day. One was a truckman and the other a watchman residing at a lodging house at 6 Extra Place; they were arrested and brought to Essex Market Police Court.

Reports of fights and drunkenness on Extra Place became more common. Fires too. One 1887 blaze that broke out in a bar fixtures factory running from the Bowery to Extra Place displaced many residents and killed two horses in a stable, reported the New York Times.

In 1888, domestic violence was reported at 4 Extra Place. In one case, two brothers stabbed each other, and one assaulted the other’s wife with a hammer. (They too were brought to Essex Market, per the Evening World.

Then there was cholera. In 1892, a woman came down with the deadly disease, and some residents were quarantined to prevent a wider outbreak. (Not an uncommon sequence of events in New York at the time.)

Reporters wrote stories about the “queer” alley and its tenements. “Peddlers rarely venture into the street,” one stated. “Crooked lampposts and ugly fire escapes are in sight, but the east side eye has been educated up to that sort of thing and the straight and dignified lamppost is regarded with as much suspicion as the bare walls of a tenement.”

Extra Place receded from headlines in the 20th century. (See the alley in the 1930s, photo at left and below.) But a renaissance for this alley located in a down and out part of Manhattan was not yet in the cards.

“Extra Place is a narrow little dead-end street, dark even by day and marked off by rusty iron warehouse doors and shuttered windows, with week-old newspapers blowing along the gutters,” wrote Brendan Gill in The New Yorker in 1952 (via the AIA Guide).

In the 1970s, Extra Place made an appearance on the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia LP cover. In gritty, broke New York City, Extra Place was still under the radar. I’m not sure it even had a street sign.

Fast forward to the 2000s, when the developers behind a new luxury apartment building wanted to turn Extra Place into a pedestrian walkway lined with boutiques and restaurants.

Judging by how quiet it was on Extra Place a few weeks ago, I don’t think the plan worked. You can luxurify this alley with trendy brands and pave over the Belgian blocks with concrete, but Extra Place’s 19th century feel doesn’t disappear so easily.

[Map: NYPL; seventh photo: NYPL]

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side 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 (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), 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!]