Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Two magical views of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

August 19, 2019

What’s more inspiring than an old color postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge?

An old color postcard of this “eighth wonder of the world,” as it was called on its opening day in May 1883, at night—with the city skyline and the lights of the bridge casting an enchanting glow across the East River.

The earliest postcard of the nighttime bridge is from 1906 (above), and I’m not sure I recognize what appears to be the Brooklyn side in the foreground.

Buildings are short and squat. Pedestrians walk the bridge as they do today, though the trolleys are gone; they were discontinued in 1950.

This second Brooklyn Bridge postcard gives us the bridge three decades later, in 1930.

The bridge itself doesn’t seem to be the focus so much as the magnificent Manhattan skyline of gleaming, towering buildings.

And wow, an airship! I hope it’s not planning to dock at the top of the Empire State Building; that idea didn’t exactly pan out when it was proposed in the 1920s as the building was under construction.

How people dressed at Coney Island in 1896

July 29, 2019

What would you be wearing if you visited the beach at Coney Island 123 years ago? Wool bathing suits down near the ankles on women; boys in striped tops and knee-length pants.

Straw hats and suit coats for men (like the vendor selling something for a penny each), and sailor tops for boys, as seen on the little kid in the lower right of the photo.

Somehow, this mass of humanity overdressed by our contemporary standards seems to be enjoying the sand and gentle waves at “Sodom by the Sea” as the 19th century comes to a close.

[MCNY Byron Collection 93.1.1.18311]

The earlier name for Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway

July 15, 2019

While browsing old postcards of Brooklyn recently, I came across this lovely image from 1905, which features a bicyclist on the then-new cycling path on Ocean Parkway.

Then I looked closer at the postcard. Ocean Boulevard? This was apparently the name for the street in the late 19th century.

Newspaper articles in 1869 announced that the “Grand Ocean Boulevard” from Prospect Park to Coney Island was in the works. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, it was to be modeled after the grand boulevards of Europe, with a pedestrian path on the grassy median.

Thanks to the popularity of cycling in the late 19th century, the bicycle path came into the picture in 1894.

Ocean Boulevard? The term seemed to fall out of favor, and by the 1890s, most news stories called it Ocean Parkway.

When summer arrived, so did open-air streetcars

July 8, 2019

New York summers were as stifling, sultry, and sweat-soaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries as they are today.

In that pre-AC city, the last place you wanted to be on a July afternoon was in a horse-drawn streetcar. (At right, traveling on First Avenue and 67th Street in 1904).

Sure you might be able to open the windows, but you were basically crammed into a group of perspiring passengers inside a metal box under the broiling sun.

“In summer the packing-box system makes comfort impossible,” complained the New York Herald of streetcars in 1876.

So with summertime comfort in mind, streetcar companies—especially the John Stephenson Streetcar Company, a leading manufacturer on East 27th Street near Fourth Avenue—began making “summer cars,” which showed up on city streets in the 1870s and 1880s.

These open-air streetcars had rows of seats but no side panels, so taking a ride in one offered fresh air and something of a breeze, depending how fast the horses were traveling.

While they were most certainly a relief from the heat, these summer cars seemed to be a lot less safe than the regular streetcars.

New York and Brooklyn newspaper archives contain many stories of people falling off them and getting injured or killed. Seat belts, needless to say, were nonexistent.

Of course, taking a streetcar in the winter wasn’t danger-free either, as this firsthand account from a boy in the 1860s demonstrates.)

[First image: unknown; second image: MCNY, 44.295.142; third image, MCNY, 44.295.119; fourth image: MCNY, 44.295.155]

The Brooklyn beauties at the seashore in 1900

June 17, 2019

I’m not sure which Brooklyn beach this is—Brighton? Coney Island?

Wherever we are, it’s clear that this tight circle of ladies in their summer frocks and elaborate hats appears to be enjoying the seashore. So is the next group, a coed clique with two men wearing what look like dark hats and suits!

[Bettman-Corbis, 1900]

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

The ghostly flower shop sign in Carroll Gardens

June 10, 2019

How long ago did Vaccarino’s Flowers close up shop on Court and Sackett Streets in Carroll Gardens?

That’s the question I asked myself when I came across the former florist’s phantom faded sign—covered for many years until late 2018 by a Douglas Elliman real estate office, according to neighborhood blog Pardon Me for Asking.

Turns out Vaccarino’s was in the flower business since at least 1938, though in another location on nearby Hicks Street.

That’s according to this Christmas season ad from a newspaper called The Brooklyn Citizen. (Phone number: TR for Triangle!)

I’m not sure when the shop moved to Court Street, but it operated at this site by 1971, in a working class Carroll Gardens dominated by Italian immigrant families and the businesses they ran—a handful of which still thrive today.

[Second image: The Brooklyn Citizen, December 1938]

When summer meant the Brighton Beach Baths

May 27, 2019

Imagine an urban beach club spread across 15 acres, with country club amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, and live music and dancing—all accessible via the D train.

That was the Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet Club, known simply as the Baths.

This “subway Riviera” on Coney Island Avenue opened in 1907, when dozens of beach clubs lent an air of exclusivity to the public beaches from Brighton Beach to Coney Island. (Below, in 1920)

You could say the Baths really had its heyday from the 1930s and 1960s, when the handball courts hosted national champions and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman entertained the crowd.

In the 1960s, a record 16,000 members played mah-jongg and rummy and heard Borscht Belt comedians yuk it up on stage.

As postwar Brooklyn changed, other beach clubs disappeared. Soon the Baths was the only one left—catering to a loyal community of Jewish Brooklynites who didn’t decamp for the suburbs or Florida.

What a scene this “happy anachronism” was, as the New York Times put it in a 1984 article.

“Enjoying the tennis, paddle-ball and handball courts, swimming pools, areas for canasta, pinochle and penny ante, a miniature golf course and an outdoor tent that is a regular summer performance stop for such Borscht Belt comics as Myron Cohen, Henny Youngman, Red Buttons and Pat Cooper, is a membership seemingly composed of about 5,000 comedians, all of them indefatigable exponents of the one-liner,” the Times noted.

“Some 20 years after this world of sports, card-playing, dancing, eating, social badinage and variants of courtship was supposed to have been replaced by high-rise apartment houses, it is still flourishing, with more than 10,000 members and a $175 fee for a 10 month season,” an earlier Times story in 1976 stated.

With the annual fee climbing past $700 and not many old-timers remaining in a neighborhood now populated by Russian immigrants, the Baths shut down in the late 1990s. (Above, the crowd in 1983)

Like Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes and the Oceana movie theater, the world of the Baths disappeared—replaced by a pricey condo community called Oceana that now commands the same beachfront real estate.

[Top photo: screen grab from “Brighton Beach Baths #1”; second photo: MCNY, 1920, 2001.35.1.235; third photo: Brooklyn Public Library, 1987; fourth photo: New York Daily News 1983; fifth photo: Getty Images]

All the ways to get around Brooklyn in 1915

April 22, 2019

I count six transportation options Brooklynites had in 1915, according to this rich and detailed postcard of Flatbush Avenue.

There’s the elevated train, of course, as well as a streetcar, automobile, bicycle, horse and wagon, and of course, getting around on foot, as most of the crowd seems to be doing—when they’re not mugging for the camera against streetlights.

[MCNY F2011.33.2138C]

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]