Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

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]

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A ship captain built this 1830 Allen Street house

April 9, 2018

In the early 19th century, the city of New York was booming and expanding.

Eyeing undeveloped land on the east side of the Bowery, city officials issued a proclamation in 1803 that ordered “all the streets on the ground commonly known by the name of ‘De Lancey’s ground’ be opened as soon as possible.”

‘De Lancey’s ground’ was a 300-acre estate on today’s Lower East Side (and the namesake of Delancey Street, of course.)

The land was once owned by James De Lancey, a prominent New Yorker of French Huguenot descent who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and subsequently had his land seized by the city.

Within a few decades of the city order, roads, building lots, and then houses went up on the former De Lancey estate. By the 1820s, the area was filling up with tidy 2- and 3-story homes.

One of these homes was the Federal-style house at 143 Allen Street, built in 1830 and a rare survivor of this early 1800s building boom.

Number 143 and five others just like it were developed by George Sutton, a ship captain who sailed between New York and Charleston along what was called the “Cotton Triangle.”

Like so many other New Yorkers, Sutton made his money off Southern cotton.

His ships would bring cotton picked by slaves on plantations to Manhattan, where it would be transferred to ships heading to England, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

“The six houses at Allen and Rivington Streets were maintained as investment properties, although Sutton seems to have preferred renting the buildings to friends and business associates—many of whom also participated in the Cotton Triangle trade,” states the LPC report.

Perhaps realizing that middle and upper class New Yorkers were now moving into fashionable neighborhoods north of Houston Street, Sutton sold the Allen Street houses by 1838.

As early as the 1840s, Number 143 was chopped into a multi-family dwelling. Over the decades the occupants reflected waves of immigration, from a Prussian family of eight in the 19th century to 15 tenants, mostly salesmen, in the early 20th century.

Number 143’s stoop was removed at some point in the 1900s—but so were the elevated train tracks that since 1879 had cast Allen Street in darkness (in the above left photo, you can just see the house’s dormers peeking out above the tracks).

A group of artists bought 143 and its surviving sister house, 141, in 1980 (the above photo shows the two homes in 1985.) Number 141 was eventually sold and demolished.

But 143 Allen Street is still with us and mostly intact—built with money made off Southern cotton and today surrounded by luxury dwellings in the new-money Lower East Side.

[Second image: Wikipedia; Third image: NYPL; Fifth Image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report]

This church was once the 1905 Allen Street baths

March 19, 2018

The Church of Grace to Fujianese, at 133 Allen Street, looks like lots of other storefront churches in New York City.

The congregation is housed in a slightly grimy re-purposed building. Window guards line the ground floor, a cross is affixed above the entrance, and signs are emblazoned with the church name in two languages.

But there’s something else on the facade—they look like scallop shells.

These sea images are a reminder that from 1905 to 1975, this was the Municipal Bath House at Allen Street, blocked off by the elevated train in its first decades.

The bathhouse opened amid a wave of public baths building in the city’s slums, giving tenement dwellers a place to wash up in an era when having a bathroom in your apartment was hardly a given.

Their was another purpose for these public bathhouses: to offer moral uplift.

With this in mind, the designers of the Allen Street baths built facilities that provided access to light and air.

“With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically,” states the Tenement Museum website.

The baths were immensely popular in the early 20th century, as The Sun noted on a July day in 1908.

“Over in front of the Allen Street bath, which was about the busiest of all the city baths, you could see more small boys with their damp hair sticking up in breeze blown wisps than ever came out of all the ol’ swimmin’ holes in the entire state of Indiana.”

Of all the public baths, Allen Street stayed open the longest—then fell victim to the city fiscal crisis in the 1970s, according to the Tenement Museum.

[Last photo: MCNY; x2010.11.2]