Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory

February 13, 2017

Born in 1801, William Chappel was a Manhattan native who made a modest living as a tinsmith and resided with his wife and kids at 165 Bowery opposite the Bowery Theatre.

[“The Buttermilk Peddler,” location unknown]

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He was also an amateur painter (and the father of a more renowned artist, Alonzo Chappel). The elder Chappel’s depictions of day-to-day street life offer a fascinating peek at New Yorkers at work and at play in the city of approximately 1810.

At that time, Gotham’s population stood at less than 100,000, most residents lived in 2- or 3-story wooden houses, the urban core barely stretched past Canal Street, and conveniences such as clean water and mass transit were still pipe dreams.

[“The Baker’s Wagon,” Hester Street]

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Even without the amenities New Yorkers are long used to, life in the 1810 city isn’t so far off from the metropolis of today.

Peddlers sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn from a dock at the end of Catherine Street.

[“City Watchman,” Elizabeth Street]

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Well-dressed women head to a tea party. Bathers wade into the cool water at Dandy Point, at today’s 13th Street. Shoppers buy meat and fish at a marketplace called the Fly (from the Dutch “Vly”) Market. Volunteer firemen attract admirers as they wash their engines on the Bowery.

[“Firemen’s Washing Day,” The Bowery]

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Chappel’s work in currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which notes that the 27 small oil paintings on display were all done in the 1870s, decades after the time period they depict.

[“Tea Party,” Forsyth and Canal Streets]

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“Chappel’s images defy easy categorization because his practice and motivation remain elusive,” states a summary of the exhibit mounted beside the paintings.”

“Did Chappel produce these works, in all their minute detail, from older sketches or from youthful memories?”

[Bathing Party, 13th Street at East River]

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“One thing is certain: Chappel’s scenes offer a rare glimpse of early nineteenth-century New York and its diverse working-class communities as it began its tumultuous ascent to the United States’ financial capital.”

What Economy Candy looked like in the 1980s

January 30, 2017

Sweets emporium Economy Candy, a beloved time machine of a candy store, got its start on Rivington Street in the 1930s (hence the very Depression-friendly name).

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Today the shop has one of New York’s most recognizable old-school signs (above), and its maze of candy bins and shelves of nostalgia brands draw big crowds on weekends—a testament to its reputation as well as the Lower East Side’s revival.

economycandy1980sBut things at 108 Rivington looked very different in the 1980s, when this NYC Department of Records photo was taken.  (Click the thumbnail to see it larger.)

How it looked inside, I have no idea. But outside are boarded-up upper windows, graffiti near the facade—and a sign noting Israeli specialties and Halvah, reflecting the tastes of the neighborhood 30-plus years ago.

The bloody gang history of two Bowery houses

January 27, 2017

Thimble factory, bakery, oyster house, hotel, barroom, Faro bank, shooting gallery: the twin buildings at 40-42 Bowery, built in 1807, have had lots of occupants throughout the 19th century.

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Reminiscent of other Federal-style houses constructed nearby, numbers 40 and 42 feature “Flemish-bond masonry, steeply pitched roofs with single peaked dormers on the front and back, gable-end chimneys and some stone lintels,” according to the Historic Districts Council.

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Even at the dawn of the 19th century, housing wasn’t cheap. In 1826, renting one for a year ran you a cool $1000, according to this Evening Post ad (right).

But you did get to live a few doors down from the Bowery Theater (below, in 1828), once a high-class, gas-lit establishment that began featuring lowbrow entertainment as the Bowery devolved into the eastern border of the Five Points slum.

It’s during Five Points’ heyday when these two buildings earned their notoriety. In 1857, 40-42 Bowery functioned as a gang headquarters and was the site of one of the city’s bloodiest gang fights.

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Number 42 “was once a clubhouse for the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards, two of the warring factions memorialized in the book and film, The Gangs of New York,” wrote David Freeland in his book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

40-42boweryboysnyplThe Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards were havens for Nativists, who despised the Irish immigrants pouring into Five Points and forming gangs of their own, like the Dead Rabbits.

“Early in the morning of 4 July 1857, a rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, attacked the house and its immediate neighbor, the saloon at number 40, with what the Times described as ‘fire arms, clubs, brick-bats, and stones,'” wrote Freeland.

The action spilled over into Baxter Street and consumed the neighborhood. An estimated 1,000 men fought—and eight to 12 died.

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The Bowery Boys gang eventually fell apart, and the Five Points slum district was broken up by the late 19th century.

But the twin houses on this section of the Bowery survived into the era of the elevated train (above in 1881, with the old Bowery Theater renamed the Thalia) and beyond.

They serve as shabby reminders of a more rough-and-tumble Bowery as well as the promise of a genteel Bowery in early 19th century New York.

The curious 1870s cat hospital on Division Street

January 9, 2017

Even 19th century New York had its cat ladies—and the New York Tribune wrote about one Lower East Side cat lady’s curious tale.

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“On Division Street, about midway between Essex and Norfolk Streets, in this city, stands a three-story, dilapidated wooden building, that evidently dates back to the Dutch period of the city,” stated the Tribune in 1878 (image below).

divisionstreetcatsnypl1861“The third floor is given up to Mrs. Rosalia Goodman, better known by the children in that vicinity as ‘Catty Goodman,’ because she devotes much of her time to the comfort and relief of persecuted cats.”

Goodman, a widow, rented out rooms in her home and left two rooms for herself and about 50 cats, reported James McCabe’s New York by Gaslight, in 1882.

She didn’t run a hospital, as articles describing her as one of the city’s “great curiosities” claimed; Goodman seemed to simply care for homeless felines.

“Lying in the closets, on the tables, and under the stove, were cats of all descriptions,” wrote the Tribune. “Some had broken limbs or missing eyes, the result probably of prowling around at night.”

cathospitalclippinThese were some lucky tabbies. In 1894, New York’s chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took charge of the city’s homeless cat situation by trying to find homes for them—or gassing them.

“Mrs. Goodman receives no pay for her attention to the cats, only the satisfaction which it gives her to attend to the maimed, neglected animals.”

“Her idiosyncrasy is so well known in the neighborhood that whenever a cat is found that is in want of food, or is in any way injured, the unfortunate sufferer is without delay placed in her charge.”

[Top image: New York by Gaslight; second image: Tribune article; third image: NYPL]

Slumming it with the 1898 Bowery Burlesquers

December 12, 2016

If only we could go back in time and buy tickets for this musical theater number, which poked fun at the new pastime of slumming—upper class New York curiosity seekers checking out the Bowery and other down-and-out city neighborhoods.

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The Bowery Burlesquers performed way off-Broadway theater in the 1890s, and audiences couldn’t get enough of it.

[Poster: LOC]

Ghost signs lurking along the Lower East Side

November 21, 2016

Urban explorers get giddy when they come across ghost signs: faded ads and store signage for businesses that have long since departed their original location.

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The Lower East Side is full of these phantoms, thanks to changes in the neighborhood that have displaced longtime retailers and services—like the expansion of Chinatown and the hipsterization of downtown Manhattan.

Turn the corner at Allen and Grand Streets, and you’ll see one ghost sign: a two-story vintage ad on the side of a tenement, with a wonderful arrow pointing toward a nonexistent entrance. What happened to Martin Albert Decorators? They moved to East 19th Street, then to 39th Street.

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At the start of the Great Depression, close to 3,550 Chinese Laundries operated in New York City, reported one source.  This laundry at 123 Allen Street was one of them.

Nice that the bar which took over this lower-level space kept the weathered old Chinese Laundry sign.

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There must be hundreds of massage businesses in the area right now. Lurking beneath this back and foot rub sign is the word “sportswear,” a remnant of the Lower East Side’s past as a center for clothing, fabric, and linen shops.

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This ghost sign at 302-306 Grand Street lies hidden under a newer awning. H & G Cohen sold towels and shams, the sign tells us . . . but no digitized trace of the business could be found.

5 houses from the East Village’s shipbuilding era

November 7, 2016

avenuedsignIf you traveled back in time to the far East Village of the mid-19th century, you would see a neighborhood sustained mainly by one industry: shipbuilding.

Along the East River, thousands of iron workers, mechanics, and dock men—many who were recent Irish and German immigrants—toiled in shipyards and iron works in what was then called the Dry Dock District, east of Avenue B.

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Marshlands were filled in, and row houses, shops, and churches (like the recently restored St. Brigid’s on Avenue B) went up for workers and their families.

“In sight and sound of their hammers along the water-front these master workmen and owners built themselves homes,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1897.

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One lovely row was a stretch of Greek Revival–style houses on East Seventh Street (the “Fifth Avenue of the Eleventh Ward,” as the block was called)—between Avenues C and D.

The circa-1840s row was built on “the profits of the sea,” the Tribune stated, describing them as “buildings of fine window casings and door frames and artistic mantels, yet with curious narrow halls and low ceilings . . . both within and without they show themselves to be houses of character.”

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Perhaps they were occupied by high-level shipbuilders at first. But as residents of the Dry Dock District gained power and ran for office, the houses acquired a new distinction: “Political Row.”

avenuedrowtimesarticlePolitical Row “has furnished many office-holders, and there were more office-holders and patriots who are willing to serve the city and county, the State or the country at large, living on that thoroughfare now than on any similar stretch of highway in New York,” stated the Evening World in 1892.

“Electioneering goes on there from one end of the year to the other.”

The beginning of Political Row’s end came at the turn of the century, when many of the original houses went down and tenements built in their place.

Newspapers wrote descriptive eulogies, mourning a neighborhood that was “an American District” now colonized by a second wave of immigrants.

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Two score years ago,” wrote the New York  Times in 1902, the “streets were then lined with trees covered with luxuriant foliage, and each house had its own green patch of yard.”

“Then Avenue D . . . was a thoroughfare that was made brilliant every Sunday by a promenade of all the youth and fashion of the neighborhood.”

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Today, five houses on the south side remain. Their facades have been altered; three sport pastel paint. Wonderful details over doorways and windows maintain their character and harken back to a very different East Village of another era.

avenuedrownumber264The row’s future is in danger; the owners of number 264 (right) have applied for a permit to demolish it.

The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation is rallying to get the house landmark status, so it can’t be torn down.

Read about the GVSHP’s efforts to save the row and preserve a bit of the East Village’s history.

[Fourth image: New York Times headline, 1902; fifth image, Novelty Iron Works, East 12th Street and the East River, 1840s; MCNY 60.122.7]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.

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“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

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New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)

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New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.

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Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The rich activists of New York’s “mink brigade”

September 9, 2016

Thanks to the labor movement and the push for women’s suffrage, New York in the first two decades of the 20th century was a hotbed of strikes and rallies—with thousands of women doing the organizing and walking picket lines.

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Most of these activists were working-class women, often young immigrants, who toiled for low wages in dangerous sweatshops.

Marching alongside them and helping to finance their efforts were a group of extraordinary wealthy ladies who took their lumps from the press, later dubbed the “mink brigade.”

annemorganThese were the wives and daughters of the city’s richest men, women who used their bank accounts to stir up social change rather than entertain at society balls.

Two well-known members of the so-called mink brigade were Anne Morgan (left), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, and former society queen bee Alva Belmont,  ex-wife of W.K. Vanderbilt and widow of banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Through an organization called the Women’s Trade Union League, Morgan and Belmont helped mobilize and support a strike by workers from the Triangle Waist Company (yep, that Triangle company).

That walkout eventually led to a citywide garment workers’ strike in November 1909 known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” (top photo).

“The socialites’ presence generated both money and praise for the strikers,” states Women’s America: Refocusing the Past.

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“The move proved politically wise for the suffrage cause as well, because the constant proselytizing of suffrage zealot Alva Belmont, who often bailed strikers out of jail, got young workers talking about the vote.”

alvabelmontandfriendBy all accounts, Morgan and Belmont (in the photo at right, she’s in the mink) were serious about the causes they espoused and sincere in their efforts.

They paid fines for strikers and used their prominence to raise money. Their presence on the actual picket lines kept police brutality at bay.

Called off in 1910, the Uprising of the 20,000 was a partial success, with most sweatshop owners meeting the workers’ demands.

And suffrage, of course, was soon to be a nationwide win. Derided as monied meddlers during their day, the mink brigade turned out to be on the right side of history.

[Third image: New York Times headline December 9, 1909]