Archive for the ‘Bronx and City Island’ Category

A hidden Village memorial to a 1930s sports hero

May 26, 2016

HankgreenberghomeOn the slender stretch of Barrow Street just west of Sheridan Square is a typical old-school city tenement.

Blending in discreetly on the outside of 16 Barrow Street is a weathered plaque honoring an early occupant: baseball all-star Hyman “Hank” Greenberg (below in 1933).

The Hebrew Hammer, as one of his nicknames went, lived there for a year after his birth in 1911, after which his family moved to a tenement on Perry Street.

Greenberg never played for a New York team; he spent his long career through the 1930s and 1940s slugging it out for the Detroit Tigers.

Hankgreenberg1933He made a name for himself not just as an excellent ballplayer but as the first Jewish superstar (his parents were Romanian-born Orthodox Jews).

In his memoir, The Story of My Life, he recalls the Village back in the 1910s.

“Baseball didn’t exist in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The neighborhood kids played one-o-cat, or stickball, or some other game that could be played on a city street.

“There was no place to play baseball, and nobody thought about the game, or missed it. Kids down in the Village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities.”

Hankgreenbergplaque

The Greenbergs decided the neighborhood was too rough and relocated to the Bronx. At Monroe High School, Hank began playing the game that earned him fame and fortune.

A rocky West Side knoll inspires Edgar Allan Poe

May 23, 2016

 

PoedaguerreotypeIn 1844, Edgar Allan Poe had a lot on his mind.

Though he’d already published some short stories and newspaper pieces, Poe was still a struggling writer working on a poem called The Raven and editing articles for the Evening Mirror.

He also had his young wife to worry about. Virginia Clemm was sick with tuberculosis.

Instead of living downtown or in Greenwich Village, as the couple had in 1837, they moved to a country farmhouse roughly at today’s Broadway and 84th Street.

 At the time, this was part of the bucolic village of Bloomingdale. Fresh air, the thinking was, might help ease Virginia’s illness.

Poebrennanfarmhouse1879mcny

When Poe needed to get away from the farmhouse (above, in 1879) and seek inspiration, he went to a rocky knoll of Manhattan schist in the woods overlooking the Hudson River, on the border of the not-yet-created Riverside Park.

He named it Mount Tom, after young Thomas Brennan, the son of the farmhouse’s owner. This outcropping still exists at the end of West 83rd Street (below).

Poemounttom20162

“It was Poe’s custom to wander away from the house in pleasant weather to ‘Mount Tom,’ an immense rock, which may still be seen in Riverside Park, where he would sit alone for hours, gazing at the Hudson,” states this 1903 Poe biography.

“Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting on [Mount Tom] and gazing across the then-rural riverland north of the city,” according to this collection of Poe’s work.

Poemounttom2016Poe himself wrote about Manhattan’s rocky topography in an 1844 dispatch to a Pennsylvania newspaper, finding the city’s “certain air of rocky sterility” to be “sublime.”

In the same dispatch, he bemoaned Manhattan’s development and the end of its rural, spacious charm.

“The spirit of Improvement has withered [old picturesque mansions] with its acrid breath,” he wrote.

“Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them. . . . In some 30 years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

PoestreetnamePoe didn’t last long on West 84th Street. After The Raven was published in 1845 and turned him into a literary sensation, he and Virginia moved to a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx.

Tuberculosis took Virginia in 1847; Poe left the Bronx and found himself in Baltimore, where he died, perhaps from alcoholism, in 1849.

I wonder what he would think of contemporary West 84th Street bearing his name?

[Second image: MCNY.org Greatest Grid exhibit]

A New York bus driver takes a joy ride to Florida

March 7, 2016

CimillobusnewspapersCollect fares, hand out transfers, navigate traffic—like most jobs, driving a city bus is pretty routine.

That’s why William Cimillo, 37, a married father of two from the Bronx who had been driving a bus for 16 years, became fed up.

“Day in and day out it was the same old grind. He was a slave to a watch and a schedule,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle.

CimillonytBoredom led to daydreaming. Cimillo (left), who strangely looked like Ralph Kramden, wondered what it would be like if he “disobeyed the rules and forgot to look at his watch and did not get to that street corner at the right time,” wrote the Eagle.

One morning in March 1947, something came over him as he pulled away from the garage to start his shift on the BX15 route along Gun Hill Road.

“‘All of a sudden I was telling myself, baby, this is it. I left that town in a hurry. Somehow, I didn’t care where I went. I just turned the wheel to the left, and soon I was on Highway 1, bound for Florida.'”

So began Cimillo’s joy ride. Instead of taking nickels from passengers, he drove across the George Washington Bridge to Hollywood, Florida.

CimillobusheadlineHe parked the bus on a side street, called the bus company to ask them to wire him $50 so he could refuel and return home, and then went to a local racetrack. Police arrested him there and transported him back to New York in his bus (below).

Cimillo was indicted for grand larceny, but instead of throwing him in jail, the bus company seemed to be on his side. They paid his bail, after all.

CimillovideoOnce his busman’s holiday made the newspapers, he generated sympathy from the public. Even his fellow bus drivers held a fundraiser to pay for his legal fees.

Charges were later dropped. He became something of a mini-celebrity, with passengers asking for his autograph and plans for a movie about his adventure announced.

Cimillo continued driving a bus for years. When asked by one newspaper why he took his detour to the Sunshine State, he replied that he “just started out and kept going … the fellows at the bus company will understand, I’m sure.”

[Top iamge: AP; second, New York Times; third: Brooklyn Eagle headline; fourth: British Pathe film clip]

An iconic TV commercial from 1980s New York

July 13, 2015

Aside from the Crazy Eddie and Milford Plaza ads that ran constantly on 1970s and 1980s, is there any more iconic New York City commercial than Phil Rizzuto shilling for The Money Store?

“Can you imagine what you could do with $5,000, $10,000, $50,000?” the Yankee shortstop turned announcer bellowed in a series of ads for this national mortgage lender based in New Jersey—ads which seemed to run constantly whether it was baseball season or not.

PhilRizzutothemoneystoreThe commercials were terrible, but Rizzuto was a character, and every New York sports fan knew his face and his voice.

He left the Yankee announcer’s booth in 1996 and died in 2007 at 89.

Luckily YouTube has preserved Rizzuto’s Money Store ads in all their low-budget, 1980s glory.

A Bronx serial killer escapes from prison in 1916

June 22, 2015

FrederickmorsheadshotIn 1914, residents of a Bronx nursing home called the German Odd Fellows Home began dying.

This is hardly unusual in a nursing home, of course. But officials there realized that the residents were dying in larger numbers than usual.

Officials didn’t have to do a drawn-out investigation. In February 1915, a peculiar new porter and nursing orderly at the home described as “neurotic” and a smoker of “Egyptian cigarettes” walked into the Bronx district attorney’s office.

Clad in a corduroy hunting outfit and wearing a feathered Alpine hat, he admitted that he killed eight octogenarians.

Frederickmorsheadlinenyt2Frederick Mors, 26 (above), a recent Austrian immigrant, told authorities that he used chloroform (and in one case arsenic) to “put people out of their misery.”

“When you give an old person chloroform, it’s like putting a baby to sleep,” he told police. “It frees them from all pain. It is humane and kind-hearted.”

 He claimed he was egged on by the home’s superintendent, who urged him to “‘hurry the deaths’ of some of the more aged and suffering inmates,” wrote The New York Times in 1915.

Frederickmorsheadline2He confessed, he said, because he was afraid the superintendent would pin all of the murders on him.

Though some aspects of Mors’ story appeared to check out, the DA’s office wasn’t convinced. They decided to give him a psychiatric test.

Mors failed, and the DA deemed him a victim of “homicidal hallucination.”

Instead of being prosecuted, he was committed to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in Poughkeepsie (below).

Frederickmorshospital

Scheduled for deportation back to Austria, Mors escaped prison in May 1916.

He was never seen again, but a skeleton found in a patch of woods in Connecticut may have been his; police found a bottle next to the skeleton that indicated suicide by poison.

When the Yankees were on top (of 168th Street)

May 11, 2015

Hilltoppark1912Broadway and 168th Street, with its rocky terrain, isn’t exactly the best place for a baseball stadium.

Which partially explains why in 1903, New York’s newest baseball team, the appropriately named Highlanders, only played in a ball park at the site for the next 10 years.

Called American League Park and nicknamed Hilltop Park, it was hastily built in six weeks, just in time for the start of the spring season.

Hilltoppark1912entranceA New York Times piece summed up the challenge of turning a hilly nine-acre trapezoid of land into a worthy stadium:

“From Broadway looking west, the ground starts in a low swamp. It rises into a ridge of rocks perhaps twelve to fifteen feet above the level of Broadway. From the top of the ridge the land slopes off gradually to Fort Washington Road.”

“As the property is today it will be necessary to blast all along the ridge, cutting off a slice eight feet or more. … There are about 100 trees to be pulled up by the roots.”

Hilltopparkhudsonriver

With the help of Tammany insider Thomas McAvoy, construction on the park began. Five hundred men (paid $2 a day) set to work digging, blasting and carting away 12,000 cubic yards of bedrock.

“In a remarkable six weeks, the McAvoy construction crew had converted a picturesque but forbidding mesa into a serviceable, if unfinished, venue for major-league baseball,” states the Society for American Baseball Research.

HIlltopparkcolor

“Fans would be accommodated in three grandstand sections ringing the home-plate area and extending along the baselines. Single-deck bleacher areas extended from the grandstands to the outfield fences while an adequately sized scoreboard was erected near the left-field foul line.”

Over the decade, the Highlanders didn’t win many games. But they attracted big crowds to the 16,000 person venue, especially with the help of the new subway system.

DSCN5324-copyThe 1912 season was their last at Hilltop Park, which was constantly beset by flooding and other problems.

The team now known as the Yankees shared the nearby Polo Grounds with the Giants, then moved into their own stadium in the Bronx in 1923.

Nothing appears to remain of Hilltop Park, bulldozed to make way for a tabernacle and then Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in 1925, which occupies the hilltop today.

hilltopplaqueBut there are a few interesting remnants. First, the lone tenement apartment building that stood out so prominently in early photos of the park still exists on 168th Street, long surrounded by other apartment houses.

And a small base-shaped plaque in a hospital courtyard marks the site of home plate.

[Top photos: Library of Congress; fifth photo: copyright David B. Stinson; bottom photo: Uptown Collective]

What remains of a once-proud Bronx borough hall

September 13, 2014

Would anyone try to put a photo of the current Bronx Borough Hall on a souvenir postcard today? Probably not. But the Bronx’s first city building, now that’s another story.

Bronxboroughhall

Completed in 1897, the year before the Bronx joined the new five-borough New York City, this brick and terracotta Renaissance-style edifice was situated high on a bluff in today’s Tremont Park, facing Third and East Tremont Avenues.

BronxboroughhallnyplA grand staircase was added in 1899 to ease the way down the sharp incline toward Third Avenue.

Lovely, right? Too bad it’s one of those structures that never received much affection.

By the 1900s, as the Bronx was transforming itself from a more rural “annexed” district to a crowded urban enclave, borough officials complained that the building was too small.

StaircaseparkodysseyWhen a new borough building went up on the Grand Concourse in 1935, most city offices moved with it.

By the 1960s, only the Bronx marriage license office stayed behind. After a fire, the city knocked down Old Borough Hall in 1968.

All that remains is the ghostly grand staircase, seen above in a 2014 photo from the website Park Odyssey.

 [Middle photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

High-school girls in 1910 celebrate Midsummer

June 23, 2014

New Yorkers in 2014 enjoyed the summer solstice by going to the Mermaid Parade, testing out the new roller coaster at Coney Island, and cruising on Citibikes.

In the 1910s, they did it by reviving an ancient holiday most commonly celebrated in northern Europe: Midsummer’s Day.

Midsummersdayfestival1911The idea of bringing back this once-popular summer event—a festival of food, dancing, and maypoles—began with a group of students from all-female Washington Irving High School on 15th Street and Irving Place.

WilliamgaynormayorThey decided that Midsummer’s Day should be celebrated in the modern city with a traditional folk festival, with Mayor William J. Gaynor (left) in attendance.

According to a New York Times article, six girls sent and signed this very fanciful, slightly hippie-ish letter to Mayor Gaynor:

“Whereas the great family known as the City of New York should, like other happy families, take part in the joys of its daughters, you, the honored father of the city, are advised that your girls are minded to meet you in the family garden, Pelham Bay Park, June 24, 1910, and to pay you filial respect, to entertain you with songs and games, and otherwise celebrate our family loyalty.”

MidsummerdayfestivalrelayMayor Gaynor, impressed with the idea, promised to bring his wife and enjoy a luncheon on the grass in the Bronx with 2,000 Washington Irving students, alumni, and family members.

After eating, a Midsummer procession was to occur. “Competitive songs and dances will follow, with the ancient midsummer torch race and other traditional games,” the Times wrote.

Midsummerdayfestivalfling

I couldn’t find an account of how the Midsummer Day festival went off. And unfortunately, when it came time to do it again in 1911, the Mayor didn’t show, according to a 1911 Times article.

But thousands of Washington Irving girls did. These photos, from the Bain Collection of the Library of Congress, are from the June 24, 1911 festival.

Above-ground remnants of the Croton Aqueduct

April 28, 2014

CrotonwatermanholeIt was an amazing engineering feat: the construction of an aqueduct from upper Westchester to Manhattan that would bring fresh water to New York City.

Built between 1837 and 1842, the Croton Aqueduct fed a growing metropolis’ huge need for clean drinking water as well as water for fighting fires.

The water had quite a journey to travel. From the Croton River it crossed the Harlem River over the beautiful High Bridge.

Crotonaqueductgatehouse

Then it flowed into a receiving reservoir in the West 70s between Sixth and Seventh Avenues (not quite yet the middle of Central Park; the park hadn’t been built yet).

From there it reached the Egyptian revival–style distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and then to streets and households all over Manhattan (who paid an annual fee for the water, of course).

CrotonaqueductinsideThe old Croton Aqueduct was in use until the 1890s (the Harper’s Magazine illustration at left is called “Shutting Off The Croton”), when it was replaced by a new aqueduct by the same name and used through the 1950s.

Amazingly, some of the 19th century aqueduct gatehouses (where the inverted siphon pipes that carried the water connected) still stand.

One is fenced off at Amsterdam Avenue and 118th Street (above). Completed in 1895, it replaced an older gatehouse at Amsterdam and 119th Street.

Another gatehouse, at Amsterdam and 113th Street, has been repurposed into a senior center.

Crotongatehouseharlem

A third gatehouse is on Convent Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem—it’s a beauty (above).

The gatehouses and manhole covers aren’t the only visible reminders of the aqueduct. Incredibly, part of an old reservoir wall appears to remain in the south wing of the New York Public Library building, which was built on the site of the distributing reservoir. Catch a glimpse of it here at Daytonian in Manhattan.

New York City’s other Washington Bridge

March 31, 2014

There’s no scandal surrounding this lovely, smaller-scale steel-arch bridge, which links Washington Heights to the Bronx.

This postcard is undated, but it depicts a very sleepy Upper Manhattan.

Washingtonbridgepostcard

The Washington Bridge isn’t very well known and gets little love by New York residents.

But it should. It opened to pedestrians in 1888 and vehicles in 1889, making it older than its similarly named, much bigger counterpart by a good 40-odd years!


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