Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

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]

An elegy for a Lower East Side public bathhouse

February 25, 2019

What remains of the Rutgers Place Public Baths and Gymnasium, built in 1909, is not easy to find.

Surrounded by the tidy LaGuardia Houses on Madison and Jefferson Streets a few blocks from the East River, this crumbling building with its windows blown out and bricked in stands like a phantom from the early 1900s.

This was New York’s progressive era, when the city opened several public bathhouses like this one in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

The point was to give tenement dwellers living in sweltering rooms in crowded areas a place to cool off and shower, in an era when having a shower was not always a given.

It’s hard to imagine the bathhouse as it was in its Beaux-Arts glory, when Rutgers Place was still on the map. A New York Times piece from 1907 announced that it would be built, “with a facade of brick trimmed with granite and terra cotta.”

“It will have a roof garden adorned with Ionic pilasters, supporting an ornamental balustrade and cornice,” the Times continued. “The gymnasium will occupy the top story.”

Besides serving as a bathhouse, the Rutgers Place Baths hosted ball games and track and field. The facility’s pool came in at a sizeable 54 by 24 feet. And just like other city bathhouses, men and women attended on separate days.

As the century went on, public bathhouses lost their appeal. In 1957, the tenement blocks near the Rutgers Place Baths were bulldozed, and the 13-building LaGuardia Houses went up in their place.

When the Baths actually closed isn’t clear, but certainly the derelict building has been left to rot for decades. Now, the city has announced plans to tear it down.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not “structurally sound,” reports Bowery Boogie.

Luckily many of the former public bathhouses built during the same era have been better taken care of and are still in use today—as a recreation center on 54th Street, a photo studio on East 11th Street, and even a church not far away on Allen Street.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1909, x2010.7.2.2446; Fifth photo; 1912, via La Voce Di New York]

The end of the Stanton Street gravestone district

February 25, 2019

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Manhattan had its districts.

There was the garment district, the novelty district, the meatpacking district, and even a pickle district, where 80 merchants on a six-block stretch of Essex Street cured vegetables in barrels.

But this is all that remains of the city’s gravestone or monument district, once centered on Essex Street at Stanton Street.

The S. Silver sign in English and Hebrew still hangs off the second floor of the tenement at 125 Stanton Street.

“Silver-Monuments” is still above the storefront in old-school big black letters, and the company name is painted in yellow and black across three stories of the building’s facade.

But the actual monument shop itself, which had been carving granite headstones since 1946? The space where generations of grieving people picked out monuments for loved ones has been gone since 2015.

Today, it’s a yoga store, surrounded by the signage of the previous tenant. Silver Monuments packed up and moved to Queens two years ago, reported The Low-Down in 2017.

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]