Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]


Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]


He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]


This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]


As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]


What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]


And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]

That time a Dodgers fan beat an umpire in 1940

October 7, 2016

It happened on September 16, 1940. The Brooklyn Dodgers, stuck 10 games behind first-place Cincinnati, were playing the Reds at Ebbets Field in front of 6,782 fans.


Among those fans was a 21-year-old petty criminal named Frank Germano, who lived at 128 33rd Street, opposite Green-Wood Cemetery, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

dogersfrankgermanoleadawaygettyimages“Game after game, [Germano] had sat on a hard wooden seat, [and] watched his beloved Dodgers, in second place in the National League, try to overtake the first-place Reds,” explained Life magazine two weeks later.

The Dodgers were in the lead until the Reds tied the game in the ninth. In the tenth inning, umpire George Magerkurth called two Reds runners safe after Dodger second baseman Pete Coscarart dropped the ball.

Cincinnati won the game—and the Dodgers were left to finish out another pennant-less season.

“Frank Germano sat stunned,” wrote Life. “He knew the runner was out. . . .  Just as the last Dodger was put out, Frank stood up on his seat, yelled ‘Burglar! Burglar!’ rushed out on the field, swung on Magerkurth, tripped him, started to pummel his face.”

“Magerkurth, who weighs 245 pounds, fought back,” continued Life. “There were curses, hard stinging blows.”


Eventually the two were separated by other umpires. Germano “paid for his enthusiasm by being lodged in the Raymond Street klink after his arraignment on charge of third degree assault,” wrote The Eagle.

dodgerfanfrankgermanolifemagazineDespite his unsportsmanlike behavior, Germano had plenty of support in Kings County. Eagle sports columnist Jimmy Wood had this to say: “Pardon us for smirking, but we can’t get broken up about that young fellow taking the bull by the horns yesterday out at Ebbets Field.”

Germano “may have done something no law-abiding citizen of baseball can ever do with impunity—assault an umpire—but he has fulfilled the secret ambition of millions of fans.”

So what happened to Germano? Ultimately Magerkurth decided not to press charges, and after a judge set him free in April 1941, Germano left the courthouse in Flatbush only to encounter the umpire he tackled.

The two men shook hands and went their separate ways, the Eagle reported.

[Top photo: Life magazine; second photo: Getty Images; third and fourth images: Life magazine]

Remnants of four obsolete Brooklyn street names

October 3, 2016

In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman noted the “pull-down-and-build-over-again” spirit of his hometown, which was beginning its transformation from a collection of towns and villages to a united urban city.


Part of that transformation meant renaming older streets—to commemorate contemporary heroes, for example, or fix confusing street names that go back to when each individual town or village had its own street grid.

Some of these renamed and obsolete street names still remain carved into the corners of old tenements. Take this one above, marking Macomb Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.


Macomb Street? Named for an early New York merchant and land surveyor, the road was renamed Garfield Place after the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 “at the requests of residents who said Macomb Street was often confounded with Macon Street,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1883, referring to another street in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Then there’s this engraved sign, noting Third Street and North Sixth Street in Williamsburg. My hunch is that as Williamsburg developed and grew, having two number streets intersect was probably confusing.


The solution: rename Third Street Berry Street (after the first mayor of Williamsburg during its tenure as its own city), which it remains today.

Back up to Greenpoint again, Franklin Street used to intersect with Madison Street. What happened to Madison? It was rechristened Oak Street—perhaps because there already was another Madison Street in Bedford Stuyvesant.


That might also be the case with this tenement corner carving, putting us at State Street and Powers Street in Boerum Hill. Powers Street is now Third Avenue, a change likely necessitated to avoid getting mixed up with Powers Street in Williamsburg.

[A big thanks to Ephemeral reader Force Tube Avenue for sending in these photos of old Brooklyn street corners!]

The faded, falling apart signs for city laundries

September 30, 2016

I’ve always wondered: why do so many of New York’s laundry places and dry cleaners have store signs that look like they’re about to fall apart or haven’t been freshened up since the Carter years.


This is not a criticism; I love coming across signs that have seen better days and bring us back to a different New York. But while so many other types of businesses update their signage frequently, laundry signs tend to look like forgotten relics.


The French Cleaners on Columbus Avenue is now closed. But the sign feels very space age 1960s. Same with Reliance Cleaners, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.


This launderers sign on Christopher Street is a favorite; it’s colorful and neat with a 1970s vibe. Grand Cleaners in East Williamsburg has the same old-school feel.


This second French Cleaners sign in Fort Greene is hard not to love. The faded blue background! That mini Eiffel Tower! I hope it lights up after dark.


Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

September 26, 2016

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.


But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.


It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.


Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The magic of Coney Island’s Dreamland at night

September 5, 2016

Dreamland’s tower, illuminating the summer sky with the help of a million light bulbs, looks like a magnificent cathedral in this 1905 image.


Beach season is almost over, so a postcard reminder of this pleasure paradise will have to suffice until next year. Of course, there’s always September’s Coney Island’s Mardi Gras festival.

[Image: Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal; x2011.34.4375]

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.


The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”


Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

One of the worst jobs in 19th century New York

September 2, 2016

As the 1800s went on, New York was bursting at the seams with new residents. By 1850, the city had a population of a little over 500,000. By 1890, the number was 1.5 million.


That’s a lot of bodies—and a lot of bodily waste. Though flush toilets existed in the late 19th century, they were generally installed in the houses of the rich.

Going to the bathroom for tenement dwellers meant using an outhouse (until the Tenement House Act of 1901 mandated private indoor toilets). Needless to say, waste piled up.


Enter the night soil cartmen. These men made a living after dark, entering tenement districts and removing the “night soil”—a creative euphemism for excrement—from outdoor privies.

The guy who actually picked up the waste (using a cart probably similar to this garbage cart above) apparently worked for a company, which was awarded a city contract take care of unsanitary things like dead animals, trash, and tons of human waste.


Where did they take the night soil? “In New York, the reeking loads were sometimes carted off to country farms to be used as fertilizer,” states a piece from Atlas Obscura.

“But more often they were hauled through the night to a designated pier and dumped into the Hudson or East Rivers (and sometimes mistakenly onto the private boats below), creating a stinking, festering shoreline. The waste would settle into the slips and city workers would periodically have to dredge the excrement so that boats could actually dock.”


The job must have been deeply unpleasant, but it was an important one. Trucking away the night soil certainly helped cut back on disease and made poor neighborhoods packed with people slightly more habitable.

Like the blacksmith and streetcar conductor, the night soil cartman disappeared after the turn of the century in New York and other U.S. cities. Think about his job this Labor Day. Working in a cube farm won’t sound like such a bad thing after all!

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYPL; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fourth photo: MCNY collections/Robert L. Bracklow, 93.91.281]

Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen

August 22, 2016

In the 1890s, huge numbers of New Yorkers donned new riding suits, bought or rented a bike, and took part in the cycling craze—peddling along park paths or roads newly paved with smooth asphalt.


Leisurely rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the century ride.

CenturyrideticketA century ride clocked in at 100 miles. It wasn’t a race but a feat of personal endurance. Each rider had 14 hours to get from start to finish and prove their cycling prowess.

“Bicycling clubs were formed all over the city,” reminisced future governor Al Smith in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now.

Centuryrideticketnj1895“You acquired full membership when you belonged to what was called the Century Club. That meant you had ridden 100 miles in a single day.”

Every neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top photo, in 1896).

Century rides were popular with young, athletic men. “With a number of young men from my neighborhood, I left Oliver and Madison Streets at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and wheeled to Far Rockaway,” wrote Smith.

Centuryridewhanderson1897“We went in swimming, had our dinner, and wheeled back.”

Century rides often went round trip from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island, as the ticket at the top right shows.

Another ticket from of an 1895 century ride lists each stop on the route from New York City to New Brunswick and back.

Century rides still take place today, and they sound like a lot of (very exerting) fun.

But their heyday remains the turn of the 20th century, when safer, more accessible bikes hit the market just as leisure time began to rise and a trend toward physical fitness gained popularity.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd street pavements improved—thanks to the invention of asphalt, which was put down on an increasing number of city roads that were once paved with blocks, stones, even wood.

The cycling craze wasn’t the only sports trend to hit New York in the 1890s. Baseball, tennis, boxing—find out more in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY, unknown photographer, 1896, accession number 49.300.7; second image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.14; third image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.16; fourth photo: W.H. Anderson, New York State Century Club winner; fifth photo: MCNY, Riverside Wheelmen Bicycle Club, 1888, X2010.11.13347]