Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

This winter day was “Rent Day” in old New York

February 18, 2019

If you were a typical New Yorker in the 19th century who didn’t own your own home (as most residents didn’t, same as it is now), February was the month you might be forced to start the torturous hunt for a new place to live.

Why’s that? Because February 1 was unofficially known as “Rent Day.”

That’s when New York landlords were required to tell their tenants how much their rent would increase starting on May 1, which marked the beginning of the new lease year in the city real estate market.

With no rent control laws or any legal limit on what a landlord could charge, many New Yorkers found themselves priced out of their current digs (or shop or office).

That meant spending the next three months searching, bargaining, signing a lease, and then actually moving (at left, in the 1930s)…only to possibly start the same process all over again next February.

“The first of February is notice-day between landlord and tenant…the house, or shop, or office not secured at this time, passes into new hands at the close of the quarter,” wrote the New York Times on February 13, 1854.

“When rents are going up, the poor tenant shakes in his shoes—or boots, if rent-day has left him the luxury—at the prospect. When they are going down, the gouty landlord shakes in his purse. The good day has not come for the former, this year,” continued the Times.  (Below, an East Side eviction, 1913)

In February 1869, the Times noted Rent Day again. “From now until the first of May those who contemplate a change will be anxiously on the lookout for new places of abode. With these, as with those who propose to remain where they are, the first inquiry of importance is as to the probability of a further rise in rents.”

So how did February 1 become rent day—thus making May 1 the city’s hectic, overwhelming Moving Day? (At left in the 1850s; above right in 1935)

The origins are unclear. It’s been attributed to an old Dutch tradition from the 17th century; The Encyclopedia of New York City (via Wikipedia) ties it to a May Day-related custom in England.

Rent Day became less of an event as the 19th century wound down. A rash of new housing—primarily tenements—gave renters more options, and railroads made it easier for people to live outside of the city in cheaper locales and commute every day.

“The inducements to live in the towns and villages in the vicinity of this City grow year by year greater,” the 1869 Times article stated wistfully.

[Top image: Moving Day in Little Old New York, 1827; second image: moving in the 1936 illustration by Don Freeman via MCNY 2013.13.12; third image: an eviction in 1935 via MCNY 43.131.11.119; fourth image: Bain Collection/LOC 1913; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York, 1915]

The butcher cart comes to the downtown slums

January 21, 2019

Gritty, virile street scenes, tender portraits of humanity, iridescent landscapes: George Luks depicted early 20th century New York with astonishing versatility.

But if there’s one Luks painting that combines all three artistic strengths, it might be The Butcher Cart, which this social realist Ashcan artist completed in 1901.

“George Luks is known for his unromanticized depictions of the slums and crowded market streets of lower Manhattan,” explains the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the painting.

“In The Butcher Cart, he portrayed a dark view of New York street life, frankly acknowledging modern technology and class stratification,” “An old-fashioned horse-drawn cart packed with butchered pigs lumbers down a slushy street, steered by a man hunched over the reins.”

This Bowery theater gave performers “the hook”

January 21, 2019

When a city policeman turned U.S. congressman named Henry Clay Miner opened Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1878, this small venue between Broome and Delancey Streets showcased a type of entertainment known as variety shows.

“Actors came on the stage to sing, dance, and do acrobatic acts and then unite to burlesque some current musical show,” wrote the New York Times in 1929.

Even for the Bowery—legendary at the time for its raucous bars, theaters, flophouses, and music halls—Miner’s drew huge merciless crowds. Customers cheered, jeered, and stomped their feet in approval as each act did their number.

“Long before the doors opened, boys with the necessary 10 cents ready in their hands were lined up,” the Times recalled.

“It mattered little whether the show pleased them or not…they could have their enjoyment by annoying the 50 cent- or 70-cent patrons in the orchestra and boxes as they drank their beer below.”

Audience participation and reaction was all part of Miner’s allure.

So in the 1890s, after variety segued into vaudeville, Miner’s came up with a genius idea to make Friday night amateur nights even rowdier: giving entertainers “the hook.”

Yep, the showbiz taunt “give ’em the hook” was invented on the Bowery.

“To get the more excruciating acts off the stage as quickly as possible, an inspired stage manager apparently lashed a stage-prop shepherd’s crook to a pole and started yanking the most scorned performers bodily from the stage in mid-performance,” stated a New York Times piece from 1997.

Naturally the audience loved it all. There was also prize money for any act that survived the hook and went on to win audience favor: five bucks and any loose change they could find on the floor.

Most of the entertainers over the years who bravely risked the hook have fallen into obscurity. Others went on to great fame—including Eddie Cantor.

In 1908, this 16-year-old wannabe performer from the Lower East Side went on stage at Miner’s. He didn’t get jeered off.

“At the end of the night, Cantor lined up on stage alongside other amateurs who had survived ‘the hook,'” wrote David Weinstein in his 2018 biography of Cantor.

“The announcer pointed to each act, while the crowd voted for the winner with noise and applause.”

Cantor won the five dollar nightly prize. Getting the hook, meanwhile, remains a metaphor no aspiring performer wants.

Miner’s Theatre burned down in 1929, just as vaudeville was ending its run as America’s favorite lowbrow entertainment…and the sin-and-spectacle Bowery was becoming the city’s 20th century skid row.

[Top image: “Bowery at Night” by William Louis Sonntag, 1895; second image: MCNY 43.316.64; third image of H.C. Miner, NYPL; fourth image: tvtropes.org; fifth image: Evening World, 1912; sixth image: Eddie Cantor; seventh image: New York Times, 1909]

The Bowery roots of a famous uptown gift store

December 10, 2018

When the store that eventually became Hammacher Schlemmer first opened its doors on the Bowery in 1848, it was a hardware emporium selling hard-to-find items and supplies for men in the cabinet-making and piano-building trades.

(Below, in an undated photo at 209 Bowery, off Rivington Street. Zoom in to see the store neighbors: an oyster house and Tony Pastor’s famed Opera House!)

Not long after, William Schlemmer, the nephew of one of the owners, (he began selling tools in front of the store for $2 a week when he was 12), rose up the ranks and eventually bought out his uncle.

Albert Hammacher, a German immigrant who also worked at the store as a youngster (also for $2 a week—not bad wages in a city where the average yearly salary for a working-class man was in the $300 range), became a principal of the company as well.

(Below, still at 209 Bowery but with a much fancier storefront and some very serious-looking employees, undated photo)

What followed over the next century was a name change, two moves (first to Fourth Avenue and 13th Street in 1904 and then to newly fashionable East 57th Street in 1926, at right), and a refocusing of the company’s merchandise.

Instead of hardware exclusively, Hammacher Schlemmer sold innovative items of the era, from “horseless carriages” to pop-up toasters to electric razors.

Today, Hammacher Schlemmer is still on East 57th Street, and their store windows continue to feature the most eclectic and bizarre presents for everyone on your holiday gift list.

The 7-person tricycle for $20K, maybe?

[Photos: Hammacher Schlemmer]

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

What remains of an 1881 bank at Mulberry Bend

October 22, 2018

I’ve always been curious about the formidable entrance of this ordinary brick building at Mulberry and Mosco Streets in Chinatown.

This corner has an illustrious past. For much of the 19th century it was a particularly dicey part of the old Five Points slum known as Mulberry Bend (below, at the point where this former cow path literally bends).

By the turn of the 20th century it was a central part of the teeming “Italian Colony,” as some called it, aka Little Italy.

The building entrance is designed to communicate strength and power: marble columns, terra cotta ornamentation, steps that elevate visitors above the sidewalk, all topped by a mean-looking eagle with wings spread, ready to take flight.

What was this Greek temple–like entrance for, exactly? A bank.

Number 28 Mulberry was once the doorway for the Banco Italia, which in 1881 served the growing Italian immigrant community pouring into Mulberry Bend.

The founder was Antonio Cuneo (left), who arrived in the New York in the 1850s. (In the above photo with the oyster vendor, 28 Mulberry can be seen without its decked-out entrance.)

Cuneo made his money first by selling nuts and fruits from a pushcart, operating a grocery store and fruit importing concern that made him the city’s “banana king,” then buying up real estate.

Though Banco Italia’s showstopping doorway may have convinced many newcomers to open accounts there, Cuneo was something of a shady character.

“In 1887, a United States Congressional investigation found that the bank operated under a padrone system, a labor arrangement where the bank, for a fee, operated an agency in Naples that coordinated prepaid steamer tickets and requests for underpaid labor,” states The Big Onion Guide to Historic New York City.

This didn’t diminish Cuneo in the eyes of his community. When he died in 1896, hundreds packed St. Gioacchino’s Church on Roosevelt Street. An overflow crowd of mourners on the street was so large, a police detail was brought in.

The bank now houses a funeral home, and the ornate entrance seems strangely appropriate.

[Second photo: NYPL; fourth photo: NYPL;

An old house and the “human comedy” around it

September 17, 2018

I wish I knew exactly where this old wood house once stood.

All I know is that it was somewhere in today’s Lower East Side, and in 1915 captured the eye of painter Jerome Myers, a Virginia native who moved to New York in the 1880s.

Myers focused his attention on the city’s worst slums, and what he called the “human comedy” that inspired and riveted him.

“Curiously enough, my contemplation of these humble lives opened to me the doors of fancy,” he wrote in 1940. “The factory clothes, the anxious faces disappeared; they came to me in gorgeous raiment of another world—a decorative world of fancy, like an abstract vision. I was led to paint pictures in which these East Side scenes are lost in a tapestry of romance. Reality faded in a vault of dreams…”

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

August 6, 2018

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 90.13.3.63; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]

Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

July 2, 2018

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]