Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

The solitary walkers across the Depression-era Manhattan Bridge

May 16, 2022

Social realist artist Reginald Marsh has painted Coney Island burlesque performers, sailors and soldiers, forgotten men at lonely docks and Bowery dives, sideshow gawkers, subway riders, and sexily dressed men and women carousing and enjoying the playground that is 1920s and 1930s Manhattan after dark.

But “Manhattan Bridge,” from 1938, is different. It’s a portrait of a muscular bridge and the ordinary, solitary New Yorkers who walk across it—figures not with Marsh’s usual exaggerated expressions but with their backs turned toward us, unglamorous and getting to where they are going.

A midcentury printmaker celebrates machine age New York City

April 11, 2022

As the machine age took hold in the United States in the early 20th century, some artists took a darker view of the mechanization of urban society—seeing isolation and alienation amid skyscrapers, automobiles, and steel bridges. Painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick, however, found something to celebrate.

“Allen Street,” 1929

Lozowick isn’t a household name, but his backstory will sound familiar. Born in Ukraine in 1892, he immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s, according to Artnet. He took classes at the National Academy of Design, studying with Leon Kroll, a painter and lithographer who often depicted the industry of Manhattan from the city’s bridges and rivers.

“Through Brooklyn Bridge Cables,” 1938

After traveling in Europe, Lozowick returned to New York in 1926 and worked as an illustrator for the leftist social reform periodical, New Masses. Influenced by Bauhaus and precisionist artists, he was also producing his own photorealistic, sometimes Art Deco style works—many of which heralded “the power of men and machines,” as the National Gallery of Art put it.

“Backyards of Broadway,” 1926

Lozowick spoke about this theme in 1947. “From the innumerable choices which our complex and tradition-laden civilization presents to the artist, I have chosen one which seems to suit my training and temperament,” he said in a publication called 100 Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art website).

“Third Avenue,” 1929

“I might characterize it thus: Industry harnessed by Man for the Benefit of Mankind,” he continued.

Rather than isolation or alienation, there’s a sense of optimism in Lozowick’s wondrous, finely drawn images. His urbanscapes of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many of which feature Manhattan, are dynamic and active. Might and power seem to be in the air.

“Slum Clearance,” 1939

Lozowick gives us a majestic city from soaring vantage points—the Brooklyn Bridge and the Third Avenue El—as well as forgotten pockets and corners under elevated tracks and along Manhattan’s industrial edges, where the new and old New York sometimes collide.

Though his focus is on how machines transformed the look and feel of the city, Lozowick doesn’t lose sight of the humanity driving the trucks and trains, powering the factories, and building the skyscrapers.

“57th Street,” 1929

“Following the advent of the Great Depression, Lozowick increasingly incorporated figures of laborers into his compositions—focusing less on the utopic promise of the machine and more on its impact on and relationship to the worker,” stated Emma Acker in a writeup about Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, a 2018 exhibit in San Francisco and Dallas that included Lozowick’s work.

“Traffic,” 1930

Of all the images in this post, only “Third Avenue” includes no human form. But humanity is there; someone is at the controls of the train.

During the Civil War, Brooklyn held a spectacular ice skating carnival

December 12, 2021

Ice skating had always been a winter pastime in New York, when the many ponds that once existed in Manhattan routinely froze over. But when the lake at the new Central Park opened to skaters in 1858, the ice skating craze of the 19th century city officially began.

“Carnival of the Washington Skating Club, Brooklyn”

Central Park may have been the top spot for gliding across ice and showing off your skating attire—and maybe finding romance, too. Ice skating was perhaps the only activity men and women could partake in together without breaking social customs or having a chaperone in tow.

But Brooklyn wasn’t about to let Manhattan have all the fun. On a Sunday afternoon in February 1862, the recently formed Washington Skating Club held a magnificent skating carnival at Brooklyn’s Washington Pond, on Fifth Avenue and Third Street in today’s Park Slope.

“Skating Carnival in Brooklyn, February 10, 1862,” Harper’s Weekly

Brooklyn in 1862 was a separate city, of course—a newly formed booming metropolis of about 266,000 (compared to Manhattan’s 805,000) that threw its support behind the Union and sent many soldiers to Civil War battlefields.

But the war didn’t preclude spending a afternoon and evening frolicking on the ice in princess, wizard, and other costumes, with a 25-piece band playing nearby and fireworks lighting up the winter sky.

Six thousand Brooklyn residents attended the skating carnival, which began at 3 p.m. “Reflector lamps” on poles helped illuminate the ice, and moonlight gave the carnival an ethereal glow.

“The bright sky, the exhilarating atmosphere, and the excellent condition of the ice proved temptations too strong for even discontent to resist, and by sundown the up-cars were thronged with eager crowds of both sexes and nearly all ages, from the toddling ‘3 year old’ to venerable age,” wrote the Brooklyn Evening Star.

The only thing spoiling the carnival? Pickpockets. Police arrested four men who were “mixed up among the skaters, endeavoring to ply their vocation,” stated the Brooklyn Times Union on February 12.

Washington Park wasn’t just the site of a skating carnival. Here, the short-lived sport of ice baseball was played in the winter (above, in the 1880s)…while fans shivered.

[Top illustration: MCNY MNY122495; Second illustration: Sonofthesouth.net; third illustration: Fine Arts America]

An 1873 map shows rural Brooklyn on the cusp of big changes

November 29, 2021

I can’t help but get lost in the Beers Map of Gravesend. Drawn in 1873 by cartographer Frederick Beers, it’s an impressive survey of one of the original six towns of Brooklyn—founded in 1643 by English-born Lady Deborah Moody and her group of Anabaptist followers, according to heartofconeyisland.com.

What amazes me most is how rural this pocket of southern Brooklyn was in the 1870s—and how much change was right on the horizon. (If you can’t magnify the map above, try visiting this link.)

First, look at that craggy shoreline of Coney Island. At some point, as Coney transitioned into the beach resort dubbed the People’s Playground in the next few decades, all those inlets and little islands were filled in and straightened out—including Coney Island Creek, making Coney no longer an island.

And what about these villages with names like South Greenfield, Unionville, and Guntherville? Unionville was actually in New Utrecht, according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article. Guntherville, perhaps named after a landowner on the map named M. Gunther, must have been a similar farming hamlet.

South Greenfield “was a very quiet and peaceful farming community, and remained that way for half a century,” states the Kings Courier in 1960. Then the Vitograph film studio opened there in the early 1900s, ushering out the farms and bringing some short-lived movie-making glamour to the area.

Names of landowners appear in very small print, familiar ones to Brooklynites today like Emmons, Cropsey, Stillwell, Van Sicklen. Geographical names have a rural feel. There’s a Hog Point (or Pit?) just north of Sheepshead Bay. Indian Pond is on the New Utrecht border.

Big resort hotels on the ocean like the Oriental haven’t arrived quite yet, though the railroads are there—soon to bring upper middle class Manhattanites to Coney Island and not-yet-named Manhattan and Brighton Beaches.

But already by this time, Gravesend is a recreational area. Boat houses are on Gravesend Bay; small hotels dot the countryside. Coney Island Road (not yet Avenue) has Newton’s Grand Central Hotel. The Prospect Park Fair Grounds is a horserace track flanked by Floyds Hotel and Bretells Hotel.

The hotel action on the seashore was active as well: the Point Comfort House, Union Hotel, Beach House, Washington Hotel, and Ocean Hotel. I don’t think any made it into the 20th century, but they helped put Gravesend on the map as a place of relaxation, leisure, and the latest amusements for pleasure seekers.

[Map: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]

It’s hard to believe this unspoiled beach is Coney Island in the 1870s

September 27, 2021

Before the Cyclone, before Nathan’s, before the boardwalk, sideshows, amusement parks, bathhouses, mass numbers of beachgoers wading into the surf, Coney Island was an actual island where settlers in the English colony at Gravesend let their animals graze, according to Brooklyn magazine.

Coney’s transformation into the world’s most famous beach resort began in the first half of the 19th century, with the arrival of Coney Island House.

But things really ramped up once the railroads arrived in the 1860s, and then when Ocean Parkway was completed in the 1870s, states westland.net by Jeffrey Stanton.

By the end of the 1870s, the big hotels came in, and pretty soon, thousands of New Yorkers every summer headed out by rail, road, or steamboat to what was dubbed the People’s Playground and Sodom by the Sea. After the turn of the century, Coney became even more popular.

Its era as a “spit of sand” that had been “lonely with rabbits” was long gone. But perhaps these 1870s beach photos, from the collection of the Brooklyn Public Library by George Bradford Brainerd, were taken at a pivotal moment in time.

That moment would have been after Coney Island had become a destination but before the great hotels ushered in the era of bathing pavilions and amusement parks, of cheap food and curiosities like disaster spectacles, exotic animals, and infant incubators.

[Photos: Brooklyn Public Library]

New York City’s oldest public school is in this 1867 building in Greenpoint

August 30, 2021

With its red brick facade, ornate entryway, and cathedral-like windows, Public School 34 in Greenpoint is a Romanesque Revival-style beauty.

But this elementary school that truly looks like a school also makes history.

Built in 1867 on Norman Avenue two years after the Civil War ended and President Lincoln was assassinated, it’s one of the oldest, and by some claims the oldest, public school building in New York City that’s still in use today.

Also called the Oliver H. Perry School—after the naval officer who helped defeat the British during the War of 1812—the building (below, in 1931) is rumored to have done a stint as a Civil War hospital.

“Walking inside the buildings long hallways, they certainly have the feel of hospital wards,” stated Geoff Cobb, a writer at Greenpointers.com, in 2016. “There are no four-walled classrooms, instead the long ward like halls have been divided up, but it is not hard to imagine that the building was once filled with wounded union soldiers.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission report that designates PS 34 a historical landmark doesn’t mention a hospital, though. Instead, it calls out the architectural loveliness of the school, as well as that it was built to serve a recently urbanized Greenpoint thanks to the booming shipbuilding industry along the East River.

It’s not a surprise that Brooklyn maintains such an early school building; the borough—which of course was a separate city at the time—was an educational leader back in the 19th century.

“Public education began in Brooklyn in 1816 and by the late 19th century had grown to the point that Brooklyn had one of the most extensive public education systems in the country,” wrote Andrew Dolkart in Guide to New York City Landmarks.

Today, PS 34 is a neighborhood school with a Polish-English dual language program, a reflection of the Polish immigrant community in Greenpoint. The site Brooklyn Relics has more gorgeous photos.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: NYPL; third and fourth photos: Brooklynrelics]

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]