Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

New York is a brick and mason wall ghost town

January 18, 2016

The construction boom across the city has this upside: after an old building has been flattened by the wrecking ball, its faded outline remains behind for a little while, before something new and shiny covers it up.

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These building phantoms give city streets an eerie vibe; they’re red brick and mason wall palimpsests of another New York. Look at the little chimneys that warmed what looks like a former Federal-style home on Bond Street?

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In Downtown Brooklyn, traces of a two-story tenement on the right hint at what kind of residences lined the streets of the independent city in the 19th century.

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On East 17th Street in is a reminder of what this Flatiron block looked like when it was all low-rises, not tall lofts.

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This corner building in Chelsea must have cut a handsome, sturdy profile. The rooms of the second floor are still outlined too.

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Back when Jane Street was just a tiny lane in the village of Greenwich, there was a little house under this steep little roof.

Two Brooklyn memorials to one 1960 plane crash

January 11, 2016

Newspaper headlines described a horrible scene. “Air crash rains death on city” screamed the New York Daily News on December 17, 1960.

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At 10:30 a.m. the day before, two passenger planes heading to LaGuardia collided over New York City.

A TWA airplane from Dayton, Ohio came down on Staten Island. A United DC-8 from Chicago hit the ground at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

Aircrashstephenbaltz

The final death toll of what was then the city’s worst air disaster would reach 134, including six victims in Brooklyn who were going about their day when the TWA craft plunged out of the sky.

AircrashstephenbaltzToday, Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue has long been cleaned up, though a few signs of the destruction of the crash remain. There’s no memorial at the intersection—but there are two not far away in Brooklyn.

One honors an 11-year-old boy who survived the initial crash. Stephen Baltz (left) was flying on his own to join his mom and sister in Yonkers, where they were planning to spend Christmas.

Baltz was badly burned, but he survived through the night before dying at Methodist Hospital up Seventh Avenue the next morning.

Inside the hospital’s Phillips Chapel is this understated plaque, above. “Our tribute to a brave little boy” it reads, next to the bronzed dimes and nickels Stephen had in his pocket. His parents put them in the hospital donation box after he died.

AircrashdailynewsIn Green-Wood Cemetery, a newer memorial marks the burial site of the bodies burned beyond recognition in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

“In an era before DNA identifications were possible, three caskets of ‘Fragmentary Human Remains’ were filled from the Park Slope crash site and were buried in a grave in lot 38325 that was purchased by United Airlines,” according to Green-Wood Cemetery.

Fifty years later in 2010, a granite memorial went up on the site. Inscribed on it are the names of all the victims.

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Nearby a bronze and granite stone poking out of the grass simply says, “In this grave rest unidentified remains of victims of the airplane crash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, December 16, 1960.”

[Top photo: Brooklyn Public Library/Irving I. Herzberg; third photo: New York Times; fourth photo: airliners.net/moose135photography]

When Brooklyn teams played baseball on ice

December 28, 2015

The history of sports includes lots of nutty ideas. One of the strangest took off big in Brooklyn in the 1860s and 1870s: baseball on ice.

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The game was huge in Brooklyn in the decades after the Civil War. Ice skating was trendy too. Why not combine the two into the ultimate winter activity, right?

Local papers covered the games enthusiastically. “Today a grand match at base-ball on ice will be played on the Capitoline Pond, Brooklyn, 2 pm., the contestants being the best players of the Mutual and Atlantic Clubs who are also good skaters,” wrote the New York Times in January 1871.

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[Capitoline Pond (photo below) was at the Capitoline Grounds, a baseball park on Fulton Avenue]

Problems cropped up though. First, regular skaters complained that the ballplayers messed up the ice. Then there was the freezing cold.

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On January 5, 1879, the New York Times wrote about a game at the Prospect Park Lake, which attracted a “half-dozen shivering spectators.”

The game “was anything but interesting to the scorer and umpire, who became so thoroughly chilled by the fifth inning that they refused to act longer, and thus the game was brought to an untimely end.”

“The problem of living in New York” explained

December 14, 2015

“In no considerable, thoroughly settled city on the civilized globe is material living attended with so many difficulties as New York.”

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So begins a November 1882 Harper’s Weekly article that lays out why making a home in the city is such an exercise in frustration.

Lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living, of course. “Even in London, to which alone we are second in commercial importance, it is not hard to find a house or rooms within the municipal limits at any season.”

Problemofnymorrisparkad“But one of the greatest troubles of the average New-Yorker is to secure a roof to shelter him and his. He has no expectation of a home—anything like a home is reserved for the very prosperous few; the most he dares to hope for is a sojourning place for six months, or a year or two at furthest.”

“The effort he makes to this end, the anxiety he suffers, are incalculable.” Because Manhattan is a long, skinny island, land is “so dear that every square foot is naturally turned to the utmost profit.”

The article points to a possible breakthrough. In the late 19th century, French Flats were introduced to the city, rental apartments where a family unable to afford a stand-alone house could live respectably.

ProblemofnybaileyparkadThe “elegant” rentals could cost up to $4,000 a year. The cheapest flat that wasn’t a tenement could be had for $400 per year. But with the average middle-class salary $1,500 annually, neither option was affordable.

Even with the development of the Upper West Side in the 1880s (top image), rows and rows of brownstones and luxury apartment buildings like the Dakota were way out of reach.

“It is estimated that a man and his wife, with one or two children, can not possibly live here in any degree of comfort on less than $5,000 a year,” according to the article.

ProblemlivingnyctheworldadThe result? A middle class resident “must pitch his tent, as it may justly be styled, in the rear of Brooklyn, along the lines of the New Jersey railroads, among the sand knolls of Long Island, or amid the pastures of Westchester.” (The ads above attest to the rapid development of the Bronx in the early 1900s.)

“New York is a great, a most opulent city, a marvel of enterprise and progress, in all likelihood the future capital of the world,” the article concludes.

“When it has achieved its highest density, let us hope that amid its splendors and its blessings may be included a few more houses.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The coolest neon green subway sign in Brooklyn

November 30, 2015

At the Jay Street-MetroTech station in downtown Brooklyn, you’ll see subway signage like this one lining the entrance.

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It lights up lime green, and the typeface and design has an Art Deco or Modernist look to it. I don’t think there’s another sign like it anywhere in the city.

A New York painter’s magical wintertime city

November 30, 2015

There’s no snow in the forecast just yet. But winter is right around the corner.

And even New Yorkers who have no love for cold weather concede that the city blanketed in snow, especially at twilight illuminated by streetlamps, is magical and enchanting.

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Guy Carleton Wiggins saw something enchanting about snow too.

An Impressionist painter who was born into an artistic Brooklyn family in 1883, Wiggins created many lovely scenes of a snowy 20th century Manhattan. (Above: “A Winter’s Evening in New York”; below: “The Circle”)

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He depicted blue-gray skies above snow-dusted horses and carriages, skyscrapers and statues, and masses of pedestrians, huddled under umbrellas or tucking their chins into their necks to stay dry.

The son of painter Carleton Wiggins, Guy Wiggins studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri and found early success. His snow scenes take place at Columbus Circle, along Wall Street, on Fifth Avenue, and at other less recognizable points on the cityscape. (Below: “Brooklyn Bridge in Winter”)

Wiggins452 Wiggins' "Brooklyn Bridge in Winter"

In an interview with the Detroit News (by way of the Rehs Galleries Inc), Wiggins explained how an elevated train chugging through a blizzard outside his studio window inspired his work. (Below: “A Winter Night in New York”)

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“One cold, blustering, snowy winter day (1912) I was in my New York studio trying to paint a summer landscape,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins1910“Suddenly I saw what was before me—an elevated railroad track, with a train dashing madly through the whirling blizzard-like snow that made hazy and indistinct the row of buildings on the far side of the street.”

“In a week, so to say, I was established as a painter of city winter scenes, and I found it profitable. Then suddenly I felt a revulsion against them and I stopped. . . . I couldn’t go on with winter stuff and that was all there was to it.”

[Wiggins, 1910]

The Thanksgiving ragamuffins of old New York

November 23, 2015

It’s one of the strangest holiday traditions in late 19th and early 20th century New York City.

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On Thanksgiving day, kids (and often adults as well) used to dress up in costume (cowboys, pirates, and princesses were big) or in their most threadbare clothes and go door to door in the neighborhood, asking, anything for Thanksgiving?

How the tradition started isn’t all that clear. Though New Yorkers had been celebrating Thanksgiving as an official holiday since 1817, it was only nationalized in 1864.

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Somehow, a day to feast on turkey (and later watch football games) became associated with a practice that was part Mardi Gras, part modern-day Halloween.

These ragamuffins, as the kids were called, charmed (and sometimes irritated) New Yorkers; they begged for nickels and pennies and played jokes.

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In some areas, these “masqueraders” even won prizes for the best getup.

“In the old days,” a policeman recalled in a New York Times article from 1930, “the Hudson Dusters, and the Rangers and the Blue Shirts used to get all dressed up and their girls did, too, and they’d have prizes for the best costume and they’d come uptown for the parade, with horns and bells. And they’d get free drinks in the saloons.”

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Of course, this old-school tradition couldn’t last. In the 1930s, the schools superintendent discouraged the tradition. Soon, only kids who lived in neighborhoods where the “subway lines end,” as the Times put it, continued to dress up, beg, and play pranks.

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As another policeman the Times spoke to in 1947 remarked, “I remember the fun we had when we used to go out all dressed up for Thanksgiving and the people dropped red pennies out the window.” (Red because they were heated on the stove, intended to burn little kid hands.)

“But they don’t have any real fun like that anymore,” he added.

[Photos: LOC; Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NYPL Digital Collection; NYPL Digital Collection; LOC]

The slow fade of Brooklyn’s Times Plaza district

November 9, 2015

Today the name only remains on the Times Plaza Station, a post office built in 1925 on Atlantic Avenue between Third and Fourth Avenues.

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But the area once known as Times Plaza—with aspirations to be as fabled as Manhattan’s Times Square, perhaps—was a bustling triangle amid the crossroads of the borough’s busiest thoroughfares.

Timesplazaeaglead1917Times Plaza had a handsome hotel as well as its own subway entrance, a gorgeous jewel box originally called the Times Plaza Control House after it opened in 1908. (Today, it’s the restored Heins & LaFarge kiosk with “Atlantic Avenue” on the facade.)

This transit hub also had shops and offices for the Brooklyn Daily Times, the newspaper that officially lent its name to the area in 1917.

Timesplazaskyscraper“Times Plaza: the triangular space bounded by Flatbush, Atlantic, and Fourth Avenues, recently so named by resolution of the Board of Aldermen,” this Brooklyn Daily Eagle ad proclaims excitedly.

In the 1920s, Times Plaza gained a polished, towering neighbor: the 37-story Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, across Atlantic Avenue.

When the Times Plaza designation fell out of favor is a mystery.

The newspaper folded into the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1937; the hotel hung on at least through the 1950s. It’s now the Muhlenberg Residence, for formerly homeless men.

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Like Ponkiesberg, Greenfield, South Brooklyn, and countless other vanished villages and towns in Kings County, Times Plaza is another no-longer-there enclave swallowed up by an always-changing borough.

[Hotel postcard: digitalcommonwealth.org]

The old-school soda sign of a Brooklyn grocery

November 2, 2015

As mom and pop delis and luncheonettes disappear from the five boroughs, so do the wonderful “privilege” signs affixed to them.

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But one continues to hang on in Brooklyn at the leafy, brownstone-beautiful corner of Lafayette Avenue and Cumberland Street.

Lafayettecumberlandcokesigncornr“Lafayete” Grocery & Dairy is a bodega that maintains a vintage Coca-Cola sign.

There’s no word on exactly how old the sign is, but oddly, it was spelled correctly back in 2009 before the place underwent a renovation.

Much older signage can be seen on facade of the building, which likely went up in the 1870s (and once served as home base of the New Diamond Point Pen Company): the names Lafayette and what looks like Cumberland carved in the corner.

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These corner-cut street signs can be seen all over New York’s oldest neighborhoods.

Body parts wash ashore the East Side in 1897

October 26, 2015

GuldensuppenackThe upper half of the torso and arms were found first, on June 26, 1897, by boys playing on a pier off East 11th Street.

The rest of the torso came ashore near High Bridge. The legs showed up off the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The body was that of a well-built man who had been alive just a few days before, according to the medical examiner. But who was he?

The gruesome details gripped the tabloids, which investigated the story along with the police.

Clues soon emerged, thanks to tabloid reporters bent on solving the murder—and selling more papers. The man had strangely soft hands, and his body parts were wrapped in a distinctive oil cloth with a red and gold floral pattern.

GuldensuppethornjailDetectives traced the seller of the cloth, who pointed police in the direction of a Danish midwife named Augusta Nack (above).

Workers at the Murray Hill Turkish Baths on 42nd Street identified the body as that of William Guldensuppe, a German masseur.

Guldensuppe was a tenant in a West 39th Street building owned by Nack. Apparently Nack was also living with a barber named Martin Thorn (left), and the three were involved in a love triangle.

By July, police had arrested Nack and Thorn, thanks to a confession Thorn gave to a barber friend.

According to the confession, Guldensuppe had beaten Thorn senseless after he found him in bed with Nack. So Thorn decided to kill his rival by luring him to a house in Queens.

GuldensuppenackjeffersonmarketAfter shooting him in the back of the head with Nack in the house as well, Thorn said that “we threw him into the bath-tub, and while he was breathing heavily I cut off his head with a razor, and stripped the body.”

Thorn sawed the body, put the head in plaster, and wrapped body parts in the oilcloth, then threw everything into the East River while taking the ferry back to Manhattan with Nack.

GuldensuppenacknewspaperIn December 1897, a jury found the couple guilty. On August 2, Thorn was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Nack served 10 years in prison upstate, then fell into obscurity.

This “trial of the century” earned its name not only because of the bloody details—but the way the press inserted themselves into the story and made 1897 a banner year of yellow journalism.

[Top photo: New York Times; second: LOC; third: New York World; fourth: oldnews.aadl.org]


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