Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

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]

A faded East Village sign for a glazier’s workshop

May 6, 2019

Ideal Glass is a nondescript name for a glass business. Lots of products and services were “ideal” in the mid-20th century—like the old Ideal Hosiery store on Grand Street, which had its own wonderful 1950s sign.

And who was Samuel Cohen’s son, or Samuel Cohen, for that matter? The glass makers who ran this store at 20-22 East Second Street in the East Village may have been lost to the ages.

Since 2004 the garage-like building has been occupied by Ideal Glass, the performance space.

They pay homage to the previous tenants here with this note on their website: the “original space at 22 E 2nd St was transformed from a 1950’s glazier’s workshop into an independent gallery space and art collective.”

The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

April 22, 2019

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

When “play streets” let New York kids run free

April 15, 2019

It’s unusual to see groups of kids playing in the streets of New York City anymore. (At least without an adult supervising.)

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with parents at work and tenements too crowded for game-playing anyway, kids were free to roam the cityscape—running around sidewalks, playing ball in the middle of the road, or just sitting on the curb, horsing around.

The street wasn’t a safe place to play, of course. Newspapers headlines of the era tell the stories of countless children being injured or killed by cars or horses.

A public playground movement was underway. But by the 1910s, only 30 had been opened, and not always in the poor neighborhoods that needed them most.

So park officials and the Police Athletic League came up with a novel alternative so popular, they still exist today: play streets.

“Every afternoon (except on Sundays), New York City’s play streets were closed to traffic so children without easy access to parks or playgrounds could have a safe space to run, play games and practice sports,” explains Thirteen.org, the website for Channel 13.

The first play street opened in July 1914 on Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey Streets. Signs were posted so motorists knew to drive elsewhere; vendors were shooed away.

“The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival—turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation,” stated Thirteen.org.

Soon, play streets began popping up everywhere, with 29 more opening in Manhattan that year. In 1924, play streets came to the outer boroughs, too.

Clearly play streets were a lot of fun for kids. What could be better than running free across the block with your friends, without worrying if you’ll be crushed by horse hoofs or run over by a car?

But parks officials had different motives for opening play streets. One was to prevent kids from becoming criminals.

“What would these children be doing if they were not playing in the street? Many of them would be learning to become criminals,” stated a 1915 New-York Tribune article, quoting a committee of officials.

“A boy must play, so must a girl. If it is made illegal for him to play the natural and pleasant games of childhood, he will substitute something else.”

Another play streets goal was to solve what the Tribune called the “dance-hall problem.”

“Let boys and girls become accustomed to each other. Let them think of each other as playmates and not mysterious creatures whom they may not know until they grow older, and foolish and sentimental, and much of [the] vice problem will be solved,” the newspaper quoted Charles Liebler, the organizer of the original play streets.

Whether the “vice problem” was solved or not, play streets and the street games kids played are memorialized in this plaque on a Mulberry Street fence.

[Top photo: The Atlantic; second photo: MCNY, 1900, 90.13.2.250; third photo: MCNY, 1908, 93.1.1.3171; fourth photo: MCNY 96.184.197; fifth image: NYPL 1936; sixth photo: MCNY, 1935, 43.131.11.183]

A walk down the longest true alley in Manhattan

April 1, 2019

New York was never the kind of city that built alleyways behind its buildings.

As Manhattan grew in the 18th century, real estate was deemed too valuable to waste on alleys. Why not stack buildings behind each other and make more money, right?

That’s likely why new alleys were generally excluded from the Commissioners’ Plan, the 1811 street grid that mapped out the future city plan of the entire island.

Alleys that already existed on city maps were clustered downtown. Some of these still survive, like Exchange Alley, a sliver connecting Trinity Place and Broadway. There’s also Mechanics Alley, running two blocks alongside the Manhattan Bridge approach.

But one new alley was fully laid out and named six years after the street grid plan: Cortlandt Alley.

Today, this shadowy and atmospheric lane runs three blocks from Franklin Street to Canal Street, earning the title of the longest true alley in Manhattan.

“In 1817. John Jay, Peter Jay Munro, and Gordon S. Mumford laid out the alley through their property between White and Canal Streets,” states the 1992 report designating the east side of Tribeca a historic district. The men named it after Jacubus Van Cortlandt, a descendant of the landowning Dutch colonial family.

It’s hard to see it on this 1828 map, but you can just make out “Cortlandt” or “Cortlandt’s” on the slender lane between Broadway and Elm Streets.

The part of Cortlandt Alley south of White Street, “was laid out separately and is 25 feet closer to Broadway,” according to the report. “Both parts of the alley were paved in the early 1820s.”

Cortlandt Alley almost extends four blocks—if you count one-block Benson Place, which lies just to the east on Franklin Street going south to Leonard Street.

A walk down Cortlandt Alley feels like entering a portal into a much earlier New York.

Nothing survives from the post-colonial city, unfortunately. This grimy lane with garbage bags on the sidewalks is lined with turn of the 20th century dry goods warehouses that feature enormous windows, elaborate fire escapes, and impressive shutters.

Bricked over windows and doorways face the alley, too, as well as old-school graffiti. No wonder Cortlandt Alley is so popular for film shoots.

A ping pong club has a door here, as does the Mmuseumm, the smallest museum in the city and located in a converted elevator shaft. Cortlandt Alley at White Street was once home to the 1970s-era Mudd Club.

“No dwelling house shall be erected thereon fronting on Cortlandt Alley,” a real estate article from The New York Times in 1859 read. That decree apparently changed, as luxury condos opened at number six.

A lot has changed in New York since the alley came into existence 202 years ago. But you can still imagine it as it was in the early 1800s: paved with stones, surrounded by new dwellings built on the landfill covering Collect Pond, and used as a shortcut by merchants, workers, servants, sailors, immigrants, and other New Yorkers in the 19th century city.

The 1877 “palace of trade” opens on Ladies Mile

March 25, 2019

Ask old-school New Yorkers where B. Altman & Company used to be, and they’ll sigh before telling you it was on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

That palazzo-inspired building, home to the luxury department store from 1906 until its bankruptcy in 1990. still stands.

But so does the magnificent, block-long, cast-iron “palace of trade” Benjamin Altman opened in 1877 in stages at 615-629 Sixth Avenue. (Above and below right)

That’s the year when this “merchant prince” outgrew his first dry goods store on East 10th Street and Third Avenue and joined the growing number of retailers occupying spectacular buildings on Ladies Mile, the Gilded Age’s shopping district.

Altman was something of an unusual character among the other major store owners of the time.

His parents immigrated to the Lower East Side from Bavaria in 1835, and he learned the dry goods trade by working at his family’s modest store on Attorney Street before launching his eponymous Third Avenue store.

Quiet and described as reclusive, Altman never married (though he did help raise and support his nieces and nephews).

He was a serious art enthusiast who donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the foundation he launched in 1913 just before his death continues to fund educational organizations.

Unlike other retail barons, Altman wasn’t a showman. It was his talent for merchandising and his understanding of the new consumerism that helped make his store so popular.

His innovations paved the way for the department store of today. Altman’s was the first to feature “designated areas for displaying clothing for customers of all ages, as well as a diverse variety of household items at fixed prices,” wrote Jeanne Abrams in a 2011 series on immigrant entrepreneurs.

“Altman made it a point to outdo his competitors in style and elegance, and the store featured an impressive central court, a glass-domed rotunda, mahogany woodwork, and carpeted elevators,” she explained.

“B. Altman & Company’s reputation for excellent service, reliability, and the latest in fashion, which included luxurious silks, velvets, and satins, many imported from France, made the store a favored shopping stop for affluent New Yorkers.”

Then there was the delivery service. Wealthy women weren’t expected to carry their own packages, so Altman pioneered home delivery with liveried drivers in maroon wagons working out of a stable (above) built at 135 West 18th Street.

He understood the needs of his elite customers so well that he provided a separate store entrance on West 18th Street (maybe this door at left?) for the most elite of them.

That way, they wouldn’t have to enter the store on Sixth Avenue and deal with the riffraff coming off the Sixth Avenue elevated, which had a stop on the corner.

Altman could also see the future—and it wasn’t on Ladies Mile. After Macy’s packed up and relocated to 34th Street in 1902, Altman followed suit.

More than 140 years later, his extravagant Sixth Avenue store serves as a Container Store, part of a shopping district very different from the fashion-heavy one that attracted throngs of well-heeled Gilded Age shoppers.

[Second image: Department Store Museum; Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: Manhattan Sideways; Sixth image, 1948: MCNY X2010.7.1.9378]