Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

What life was like with the elevated train roaring outside your window

November 15, 2021

“The elevated railroad, perpetually ‘tearing along’ on its stilted, aerial highway, was ‘an ever-active volcano over the heads of inoffensive citizens,” wrote one Australian visitor who came to New York in 1888.

38 Greenwich Street in 1914

That description gives us an idea of the feel of Gotham in the late 19th century, when steam-powered (later electric) elevated trains carried by trestles and steel tracks ran overhead on Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues.

The upside to the elevated was obvious: For a nickel (or a dime during off hours), people could travel up and down Manhattan much more quickly than by horse-drawn streetcar of carriage. New tenements, row houses, and entertainment venues popped up uptown, slowly emptying the lower city and giving people more breathing room.

Bronx, undated

The downside? Dirt and din. The trains and tracks cast shadows along busy avenues, raining down dust and debris on pedestrians. (No wonder Gilded Age residents who could afford to changed their clothes multiple times a day!) And then there was the deafening noise every time a train chugged above your ears.

Now as unpleasant as the elevated trains could be in general, imagine having the tracks at eye level to your living quarters. Life with a train roaring by at all hours of the night was reality for thousands of New Yorkers, particularly downtown on slender streets designed for horsecars, not trestles.

Allen Street north of Canal Street, 1931

“The effect of the elevated—the ‘L’ as New Yorkers generally call it—is to my mind anything but beautiful,” wrote an English traveler named Walter G. Marshall, who visited New York City 1878 and 1879.

“As you sit in a car on the ‘L’ and are being whirled along, you can put your head out of the window and salute a friend who is walking on the street pavement below. In some places, where the streets are narrow, the railway is built right over the ‘sidewalks’…close up against the walls of the houses.”

Second Avenue and 34th Street, 1880s

Maybe these unfortunate New Yorkers lived in a tenement before the trains came along, and they couldn’t find alternative housing after the elevated was built beside their building. Or perhaps in the crowded city teeming with newcomers at the time, a flat next to a train was the best they could find with what little they had to spend.

Wrote Marshall: “The 19 hours and more of incessant rumbling day and night from the passing trains; the blocking out of a sufficiency of light from the rooms of houses, close up to which the lines are built; the full, close view passengers on the cars can have into rooms on the second and third floors; the frequent squirting of oil from the engines, sometimes even finding its way into the private rooms of a dwelling-house, when the windows are left open—all these are objections that have been reasonably urged by unfortunate occupants of houses who comfort has been so unjustly molested….”

Allen Street, 1916

Eye-level elevated trains continued into the 20th century, with above ground subway tracks as well as older els making it more likely that New Yorkers could find themselves with a train rattling and shaking their windows.

And it’s still an issue today, of course, even with those original el lines long dismantled. Tenements and apartment buildings near bridge approaches, tunnel entrances, and above ground subway tracks are still at the mercy of mass transit in a city still of narrow streets, single pane windows, and rickety real estate.

Convergence of the Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue Els, 1938

[Top photo: MCNY x2010.11.2127; second photo: New-York Historical Society; third photo: MCNYx2010.11.4; fourth photo: CUNY Graduate Center Collection; fifth photo: MCNY MNY38078; sixth photo: MCNY MN11786]

A moment in time somewhere on the Bowery

November 1, 2021

An abandoned street cleaning cart. Men in hats walking alone. A streetcar traveling on dusty Belgian block pavement, an elevated train overhead, a succession of store signs and advertisements.

It’s just a glimpse in time around the turn of the century on the Bowery. But where, exactly? One of the buildings has 57 on it, suggesting 57 Bowery. That address no longer exists; it would have been near the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge.

There’s another sign that might give us a clue: the ad propped against a pole at the edge of the sidewalk. It looks like the first word is “London.” A theater with that name existed at 235 Bowery, where the New Museum is today between Stanton and Rivington Streets.

Whatever the exact address is, you can practically feel the energy and vitality—the pulse of a street now synonymous with a lowbrow kind New York life.

A spectacular old-school sign on Orchard Street

October 4, 2021

Now this is what I call a spectacular vintage New York City store sign, found—where else?—on Orchard Street between Delancey and Rivington.

Sadly, S. Beckenstein is no longer with us. According to Bowery Boogie, this fabrics store founded by Samuel Beckenstein in 1919 (first in a pushcart, then an actual shop) shut its doors on Orchard Street and moved to the Garment District in 2003.

Perrotin, a bookstore and gallery, remains, and must be maintaining the wonderful throwback signage.

This modest Forsyth Street walkup was once a synagogue

September 6, 2021

Forsyth Street between Grand and Hester Streets is a pretty typical Lower East Side block, with an uneven row of shabby but serviceable tenement walkups lining the east side of the street along Sara Roosevelt Park.

But one of those walkups, number 80, has some curious architectural touches. The third floor of the three-story building features Gothic arched and circular windows; you can almost imagine them filled with stained glass. And iron stars of David decorate each fire escape landing.

There’s good reason for these design flourishes. Though 80 Forsyth was built in 1874, according to 2013 post in The Lo-Down, what was once a house or tenement was converted into a synagogue in the late 19th century.

Turning a residential or commercial space into a synagogue may not have been unusual at the time. (Just as it’s not so unusual now, with storefront churches.) In the 1880s and 1890s, the Lower East Side was filling up with thousands of Jewish immigrants, who formed or joined congregations and needed places to worship.

Several congregations used the synagogue over the years. In the 1880s, a congregation identified by The New York Times as Kol Israel Anschi Poland occupied the space. The Times wrote that the congregation was fighting a tax bill from the city because the property was used for religious purposes, the congregation asserted.

But the city won the case, convincing the judge that since the ritual baths in the basement were open to “all Hebrews,” not just congregants, the building was liable to taxation.

I’m not sure when the last congregation abandoned the building. But this 1939-1941 tax photo of 80 Forsyth (above) appears to have a commercial tenant on the ground floor. (There’s the stained glass; if only the photo was in color!)

In the 1960s, the house turned synagogue took on an entirely new life: It became the studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Pat Passlof, per The Lo-Down.

Passlof bought the building in 1963 for $20,000 with her husband, painter Milton Resnick, and help from her parents, who pronounced it a “rat hole,” according to a 2011 New York Times piece.

“They called it a rat hole, but I couldn’t deny that,” Passlof said in the Times article. She was 83 and died later that year.

In 2014, the ex-synagogue went on the market for $6,250,000. Number 80 Forsyth has returned to its original purpose as a residence, it seems.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A painter’s evocative look at an empty street beside the Manhattan Bridge

August 16, 2021

Anthony Springer was a lawyer-turned-artist who painted the energy and vitality of various downtown New York City neighborhoods until his death in 1995.

His work has been featured on this site before—rich, colorful images of quiet streets and empty stretches of Greenwich Village before the 1990s revitalization breathed new life into fading storefronts and forgotten corners…and in many cases changed the fabric of the neighborhood.

Here’s a Springer painting that offers a look at a slender street alongside the Manhattan Bridge. It calls up a time when you could find deserted streets like this downtown—populated by pigeons, a lone parked car (or stolen one ditched?), an industrial building not turned into lofts, a glorious bridge empty of the pedestrians and bikers seen today.

I’m not sure if we’re on the Manhattan or Brooklyn side, but it’s an evocative reminder of a different city.

[Invaluable]

The castles and villages of 1914 Lower Manhattan

August 9, 2021

For a painting with such a perfunctory name, “Municipal and Woolworth Buildings, Lower Manhattan,” by Lionel S. Reiss, gives us a stunning look at a two-tiered city.

In the distance is the New York of concrete canyons and tall buildings reaching toward the heavens, ethereal and dreamlike. In the foreground are the the tenements of the people, in hearty earth tones that reflect the life and activity happening inside them.

Born in 1894 in Jaroslaw Poland, Reiss grew up on the Lower East Side; he would have had a front-row seat to the changing landscape around City Hall and the Financial District in the early 1900s. After working as a commercial artist in the 1920s, he traveled through Europe and North Africa, returning to New York City before World War II.

“One of the central themes of Reiss’ art was that of every day street life, replete with its class distinctions and social strata,” stated one source, a Jewish research archive that includes his work. In this 1914 painting, Reiss seems to be depicting class distinction by painting two skyscrapers as Medieval castles and the tenements as the village surrounding them.

What a hot night looked like on an East Side tenement block in 1899

July 29, 2021

First of all, almost everyone is outside—on the street, the sidewalk, fire escapes. If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment without an air conditioner, you know how stifling those rooms can get, and they force you to seek relief outdoors.

The other thing is, people don’t look as miserable as you’d expect for a street scene in the summer heat. Kids are playing; groups of adults are talking. Lone men and women sit on the sidewalk or stoops and watch. Tempers don’t seem to be flaring; no one appears to be looking for a fight.

The moon is bright. What looks like an arc light in the background illuminates the street. People gather at tables by torchlight. As the caption says, it’s one of hundreds of similar scenes enacted at the same time all over the city.

[NYPL]

A tenement sign high up at the corner of First Street and First Avenue

July 19, 2021

The corner of First Street and First Avenue is roughly the borderline of the East Village. And what better than an old-school address sign like this one affixed to a handsome brick building to welcome you to the neighborhood as you leave the Lower East Side behind?

These early 20th century address markers can be found on many tenement corners throughout New York City. In some cases, they may have served to let elevated train riders know exactly where they were passing.

Or perhaps these signs—sometimes raised and embossed, other times carved into the building—simply let pedestrians know where they stood in an era when reliable street signs had not yet arrived to ever corner in poor neighborhoods.

This pricey co-op building was once a Lower East Side public library

July 18, 2021

New York developers have made apartment buildings out of former hospitals, police stations, schools, and churches. Now, a library branch has undergone the transformation to luxury housing.

What was once the Rivington Street branch of the New York Public Library has been rebranded as a Lower East Side boutique co-op called, of course, “The Library.”

Purchased by a developer in 2018 and renovated into 11 high-end units, The Library is already luring buyers, even though it doesn’t look like the co-op redo transformation is finished. But it’s not much of a surprise that many of the units have been snapped up, considering the recent reinvention of the Lower East Side as a posh area.

Imagine Rivington Street the way it was in the early 1900s as part of a very different Lower East Side.

Opened in 1906 on a crowded block between Eldridge and Allen Streets, the Rivington branch was designed by McKim, Mead, & White in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The architectural firm was responsible for great public buildings like Penn Station, but they also took on smaller projects, such as the Tompkins Square NYPL branch on East 10th Street.

The Beaux-Arts design lent a sense of elegance to a building largely patronized by poor immigrants living in the neighborhood’s surrounding shoddy tenements.

Engaged readers on the roof

The Rivington branch was one of the city’s new “Carnegie” libraries, funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie (who lived in a spectacular Fifth Avenue mansion more than 100 blocks north). The main New York Public Library building was still under construction on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, set to open in 1911.

Like other neighborhood libraries, the Rivington Street branch quickly had a devoted following. Part of its popularity might be due to the open-air reading area on the roof, which proved to be a huge draw during the hot summer months, according to a 1910 New York Times article.

As the photo above shows, the roof really was for dedicated reading rather than sunbathing or goofing off. “Only children or adults actually engaged in reading are permitted to stay,” the Times wrote.

So how did the library branch end up as a co-op? I’m not sure when the branch was decommissioned as a library, but at that point a church took the building over. A developer bought it from the church in May 2018, renovating the former reading rooms and adding three stories.

The “adult desk” at the Rivington Street NYPL branch

What does it cost to live in a former library, where generations of New Yorkers read, dreamed, educated themselves, and stole some time away?

It’s not cheap. The five-room penthouse is in contract for more than $4 million, according to Streeteasy. At least the engraved plaque on the front that reads “New York Public Library” is still on the facade, a reminder of the building’s original purpose.

[Second photo: NYPL. Third photo: New-York Tribune, 1906. Fifth photo: NYPL]

A painter captures the last years of these East Village tenements

July 12, 2021

A New Yorker since his birth in 1928, Arthur Morris Cohen studied at Cooper Union from 1948 to 1950, according to askart.com. So he knew the neighborhood when he decided to paint what looks like the southeast or southwest tenement corner at Third Avenue and 9th Street in 1961.

Cohen’s version of the corner would be similar to what it probably actually looked like in the early 1960s. The East Village was not even the East Village yet; it would be a few years before the tenement neighborhood was rebranded from the Lower East Side, which was on the decline economically.

1941 tax photo of 111-113 East Ninth Street

None of these walkups exist today. In fact, all four corners at Third and Ninth are occupied by postwar buildings. On the southwest corner is a 1960s-era white brick apartment building called the St. Mark, which likely took the place of these low rises in 1965, when the building was completed. Or maybe the row stood where a huge NYU dorm has been since the 1980s, with Stuyvesant Place running alongside it.

This 1941 tax photo from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services at the southwest corner gives some idea of what Cohen painted.