Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The 1916 stunt that made Nathan’s Famous a Coney Island hot dog icon

July 26, 2021

No summer visit to Coney Island is complete without a stop at Nathan’s Famous, the iconic boardwalk restaurant that offers everything from burgers to frog legs (really) but made its name back in 1916 selling delicious, cheap hot dogs.

Nathan’s Famous in the 1910s or 1920s

Yet the five cent frankfurters Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker began hawking from a stand on the then-unfinished boardwalk wouldn’t have caught on—if not for a clever stunt he came up with to convince the crowds on Surf Avenue to give his hot dogs a try.

Nathan’s in 1936, with a little competition by Nedick’s on the corner

The story starts in the 1910s, when the reigning hot dog king at Coney Island was Charles Feltman, who ran a successful restaurant and beer garden and supposedly invented the hot dog (or hot dog bun, more precisely).

Handwerker worked for Feltman as a roll cutter and then a hot dog seller before deciding to go into business for himself with a friend, according to Nathan’s Famous: An Unauthorized View of America’s Favorite Frankfurter Company, co-authored by William Handwerker, Nathan’s grandson.

Nathan’s expanded its menu by 1939

Feltman’s and other hot dog establishments sold their franks for 10 cents each. Handwerker priced his at the same rate, but he realized he wasn’t selling enough to make a profit. So he cut the price to a nickel.

Selling hot dogs for the cost of a subway ride sounds like a smart business move. But there was a lot of concern at the time that a hot dog so cheap couldn’t be made out of beef or pork but something a lot less appetizing, like horses, explained Larry McShane in a New York Daily News article marking Nathan’s centennial in 2016.

A Nathan’s customer in 1939

Anticipating this concern on the part of the public, Handwerker came up with a genius idea: He’d hire men to wear white doctor coats and sit around his stand enjoying the cheap franks.

Handwerker “borrowed some doctor’s coats and stethoscopes from Coney Island Hospital personnel and put them on some men and had them eat franks in front of his stand,” wrote William Handwerker. “Potential customers said, ‘If it’s good enough for doctors, it has to be good enough for us.'”

Juicy hot dogs…and an amazing neon boardwalk sign!

Sales increased, and Handwerker began attracting a devoted following. His little frankfurter stand (which didn’t even have a name for its first two years, according to William Handwerker) was on its way to becoming a Coney Island classic.

[Top photo: via New York Daily News; second photo: MCNY 43.131.5.13; third photo: MCNY 43.131.5.91; fourth photo: NYPL]

A 1970s remnant of a Crazy Eddie record store

June 7, 2021

I have no idea why the original owner of this yellow paper bag from Crazy Eddie’s held onto it for so long. But when it turned up for sale at a vintage shop (pressed in plastic, no less), I couldn’t resist spending a few bucks to own a piece of 1970s/1980s New York history.

If you lived in the New York City area in those decades, then you remember the electronics store and record/tape shop Crazy Eddie—mainly for the commercials, which featured a DJ named Jerry Carroll gesturing and shouting that the store’s prices were insane. (Sometimes in a santa claus cap for the annual Christmas in August sale.)

The original Crazy Eddie was on King’s Highway in Brooklyn. But the store’s TV ad schtick and actual low prices spread franchises to the Bronx, Manhattan, upstate, and Long Island.

Unfortunately it was all over for Crazy Eddie’s owners by the 1990s, thanks to inflating sales numbers and other illegal business practices that mandated store closures and jail time. New Yorkers turned to other electronics stores like (Nobody Beats) the Wiz and J&R Music World, but these too are long gone from the cityscape.

A quick Google maps check shows that the original King’s Highway store is now a bank branch.

[Second image: New York Daily News February 22, 1980; third image: Youtube]

Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment armory, day and night

May 31, 2021

Designed to look like a Medieval fortress with towers and turrets, the 14th Regiment Armory—also called the Eighth Avenue armory—has been part of Park Slope since 1893.

In daytime or at night, this block-spanning armory with brick and bluestone trim is a Victorian wonder, as these postcards (the first one with glitter!) from the collection at the Museum of the City of New York reveal.

It owes its existence to the wave of armory-building undertaken by New York between the Civil War and World War I. Not many survive, but putting the spotlight on one on Memorial Day will hopefully encourage New York to take a closer look at these magnificent beauties.

[First postcard: F2011.33.1067; Second postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2288]

The 1957 rallies to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn

May 24, 2021

By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall. Shabby Ebbets Field, opened in 1913, wasn’t cutting it for Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. He wanted a newer, bigger stadium for his team.

But one key city official wasn’t on board with O’Malley’s plan for a Buckminster Fuller–designed domed ballpark with plenty of parking at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. That man “was Robert Moses, who basically held veto power over any city project budgeted at more than $250,” wrote David Hinckley in the New York Daily News in 2017.

While Moses was trying to convince O’Malley to build his new ballpark in Fresh Meadows, Queens, O’Malley began scouting out sites 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, according to Hinckley.

In the spring of 1957, Dodger fans still thought they had a chance. So a group of Brooklyn businessmen led by Henry Modell (of Modell’s Sporting Goods fame) formed an organization aptly called the “Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn Committee,” based at the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights.

Their goal, as outlined in a letter to the Brooklyn Tablet in May 1957, was to convince officials to go ahead with the domed stadium plan, have residents sign petitions, and “organize and stage borough-wide rallies and mass meetings to demand action.”

The rallies happened outside Brooklyn Borough Hall beside the imposing columns; adult and kid fans held placards, wore buttons, and hoped that a show of support would keep the beloved team in the County of Kings.

Unfortunately, these rallies didn’t make a dent. O’Malley announced his plan to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles at the end of the season. Ebbets Field was demolished in February 1960—by a wrecking ball designed to look like a baseball.

[Top image: Keyman Collectibles; second and third images: Brooklyn Daily]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The two most romantic street names in old Manhattan

May 17, 2021

New York has always been a city that encourages love and passion, with plenty of lush parks, quiet corners, and candlelit cafes lending privacy and romantic ambiance.

Couples living in 18th and early 19th century Manhattan didn’t have these places at their disposal when they wanted some alone time, of course. But they did have options—like the two now-defunct streets named “Love Lane.”

The first Love Lane began at the foot of the Bowery, called Bowry Lane on John Montresor’s 1775 map (above, and in full via this link). This map laid out the small city center at the tip of Manhattan and along the East River.

Love Lane off the Bowery (referenced in an 1818 New-York Evening Post ad, above) was a “road on the Rutgers Farm, running on or near the line of the present Henry Street,” states oldstreets.com, a site that explains the history of city street names.

Thomas Allibone Janvier’s In Old New York, published in 1893, mentions this “primitive” Love Lane, which he also places on the former Rutgers Estate near present-day Chatham Square. Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, from 1922, states that Love Lane was the original name for today’s East Broadway; it was a lane that led to the Rutgers Farm.

Exactly what colonial-era New Yorkers did on the Love Lane of the Rutgers Estate wasn’t specifically recorded by these authors. But we do have a better idea of what lovers (or would-be lovers) did on the city’s other Love Lane—which ran along West 21st Street in today’s Chelsea. Apparently, they went for long, secluded carriage drives.

“Before this area became incorporated into an expanding New York City, 21st Street was a rural lane known as the Abingdon Road, which connected Broadway with Fitzroy Road, as 8th Avenue was then called,” explains nysonglines.com.

“Abingdon was nicknamed Love Lane, because carriage rides out to the country (i.e. Midtown) were apparently the main form of dating, and coming back by Abingdon was taking the long way home.”

Different sources have Chelsea’s Love Lane taking various routes. But it seems to have begun at Broadway (then called Bloomingdale Road) and followed 21st Street west before intersecting with Fitz Roy Road, following today’s 22nd to 23rd Street, and running to Tenth Avenue beside the Hudson River.

“There is no record to show where the name came from,” wrote Charles Hemstreet in Nooks and Corners of Old New York. “The generally accepted idea is that being a quiet and little traveled spot, it was looked upon as a lane where happy couples might drive, far from the city, and amid green fields and stately trees confide the story of their loves.”

Valentine’s Manual agrees that this Love Lane followed Abington Road up the West Side to Fitz Roy and 21st Street, but has it turning east to Third Avenue and 23rd Street.

Chelsea’s Love Lane (above, in an 1807 map by William Bridges and Peter Maverick) was “swallowed up,” Hemstreet wrote in 1899, with the opening of West 21st Street in 1827.

Both of these Love Lanes have long disappeared from the urbanscape. But if you’re wishing you could live on a street with such a romantic name, head on over to Brooklyn.

Love Lane, a sweet one-block former mews in Brooklyn Heights, is quiet, tucked out of the way, and intimate. How this street got its name is something of a mystery, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle explores in a 2019 article. It may have been a romantic path down to the East River; it could have something to do with the women’s college once located around the corner.

[Top image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; second image: New-York Evening Post; third image: unknown; fourth image: New-York Evening Post; fifth Image: NYPL]

Solving the mystery of a Brooklyn cafeteria ghost sign

May 10, 2021

Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street has been a bustling shopping destination since the 19th century. Storefronts have changed hands many times, and signs have gone up and down over the years as the street went from Gilded Age posh to middle class to more of a discount area through the decades.

But there’s something unusual above a storefront at the corner of Fulton and Jay Streets. Look up, and you’ll see a sliver of a ghost sign between an Ann Taylor and a human hair wig shop.

What’s left of the sign at 447 Fulton Street says “teria,” for cafeteria. The cafeteria logo, an apple with a W on it, is visible as well. What was this cafeteria, and when did it serve hungry Brooklyn shoppers?

It’s a mystery solved by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. A quick search through their 1940 tax photo archive shows that it was a Waldorf Cafeteria, which appears to have two entrances at this corner: one on Fulton Street (harder to see on the photo’s right side) and one on Jay Street (at left).

Old-time New Yorkers might remember the Waldorf Cafeteria chain. Founded in 1903 in Massachusetts, franchises opened in New York City as early as the 1930s and seemed to stick around until at least the 1950s in various locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

The life span of the Waldorf Cafeteria on Fulton Street is unclear. But it might have been in business since the early 1930s, if this is it in a 1931 photo from the Museum of the City of New York that didn’t have a location listed in the description.

The cafeteria was certainly there in the 1940s, as the tax photo shows, and as the dozens of help wanted ads in 1940s New York City papers reveal. This ad comes from the Brooklyn Eagle on May 8. 1944. Women and girls were in demand, with so many young men away at war.

The Waldorf Cafeteria chain also figures into the backstory of a writer’s sordid death in the 1950s. Poet, gadfly, and Greenwich Village character Maxwell Bodenheim met with a literary agent at a Waldorf on Park Avenue and 25th Street the day before he was found murdered in a Third Avenue flophouse in 1954.

The Waldorf remnant sign on Fulton Street looks like it could date to the 1950s or 1960s, though photos from those decades don’t seem to be available. Whenever it dates to, big thanks to Ephemeral reader Joe Mobilia for noticing the sign and snapping the photos.

[First and second photos: Joe Mobilia; third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.16877; fifth image: Brooklyn Eagle.]

How New York became a metropolis of stoops

December 7, 2020

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]