Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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:]

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.


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.


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:]

Three ghostly faded ads in Downtown Brooklyn

October 26, 2015

GhostsignschandleradToday, Downtown Brooklyn is a bustling shopping destination.

But Fulton Street and surrounding thoroughfares are nothing like what they were in their late 19th and early 20th century heyday, when the neighborhood was packed with shops and department stores catering to middle- and upper-class tastes.


Luckily we have ghost signs on the sides of old buildings to remind us of businesses that no longer exist.

Case in point: the Chandler Piano Company, founded on Montague Street in 1869 and headquartered at 222 Livingston Street since 1907.


This remarkably preserved ad emerged last year when the building it hid behind met the wrecking ball. At the roof, you can just make out the words “Chandler-Ebel Music Co.,” the name of one of founder Frank Chandler’s music businesses.

GhostadpomeroyadTrusses, stockings . . . and artificial legs? Pomeroy Surgical Appliances made a business selling these and other scary-sounding devices at 208 Livingston Street and 584 Fulton Street.

The ad on Livingston has that wonderful old-fashioned hand sign, pointing customers right to the convenient elevator.

This J. Michaels faded ad, dwarfed by a residential tower near Smith Street, doesn’t look like much.


But the company has a long Kings County history: it sold furniture on Smith Street (apparently once a big furniture showroom hub) from 1886 until 1996.

I’m not so sure everyone who shopped at the store agreed that they were “great” as the ad claims. In 1972, the Department of Consumer Affairs sued the company for selling “defective and shoddy” furniture to low-income customers.

The last remnant of a colonial Brooklyn road

October 19, 2015

Redhooklanestreetsign2Red Hook Lane is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stretch of road off bustling Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn.

This one-block lane is the last remnant of colonial-era Red Hook Lane, a Canarsie Indian trail that became the route from the heights of Brooklyn town through Dutch farmland to the swampy Red Hook waterfront.

Enlarge this 1760s map and you can just make out “Red Hook Lane” beneath Flatbush Avenue, where it says “Brookland Parish.”


It has Revolutionary War significance too. Red Hook Lane, an important Continental Army artery, is where George Washington watched the British outflank the Patriots at Gowanus Pass during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

Redhooklanesouth“Old Red Hook Lane was originally 25 feet wide, and ran from Boerum Place diagonally across Atlantic Avenue, between Court Street and Boerum Place, running near the old engine house on Pacific Street,” according to an 1894 New York Times piece.

“Then, turning, it cut the southeast corner of Pacific Street and Court Street. From there it passed along from Tompkins Place, and then to Henry Street.”

Incompatible with the urbanization of Brooklyn and an orderly street grid, Red Hook Lane (looking south, above) was slowly swallowed up by the growing city. (Red Hook in 1875, below).


A few curious reminders of its past glory remain. The odd angles of the buildings at 228 Atlantic Avenue and 234 State Street apparently reflect the path Red Hook Lane once took.

And signs for the Red Hook Lane Heritage Trail in Red Hook mark approximately where the old road used to be.


Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

September 14, 2015

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.


“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?


“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”


It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

Faded ad reveals an old Brooklyn phone exchange

September 3, 2015

It’s hard to tell how old this Realty Corp. faded ad is. But it could date as far back as 1930. That’s when the Midwood phone exchange was created, usually abbreviated MI.


Construction off Kings Highway and East 16th Street brought the ad—and vintage graffiti—back into view. The best vantage point: from the Q train platform at the Avenue P Kings Highway subway station.


Phone exchange spotting is always fun, and there’s plenty of signs and ads still left in the city that have them. Just keep your eyes peeled!

A Brooklyn street named for a president’s son

August 31, 2015

QuentinroadOn a street grid packed with lettered avenues, Brooklyn’s Quentin Road stands out.

Stuck between Avenue P and Avenue R, Quentin Road actually used to be known as Avenue Q. But in 1922, a petition to change the name was brought to the city’s Board of Aldermen. So who was Quentin, and why did Brooklynites want to honor him with a street name?

Quentin was Quentin Roosevelt, 21, fifth child of Teddy Roosevelt. Rambunctious and mischievous as a child, Quentin left Harvard and his fiance, Flora Vanderbilt Payne, in 1916 to volunteer for World War I.

QuentinrooseveltHe trained as a pilot at a field on Long Island (today known as Roosevelt Field), but was killed in combat over France in 1918.

The petition to rename Avenue Q for Quentin may have had to do with his father’s popularity in New York. After all, he was the former city police commissioner and state governor, not to mention U.S. president.

QuentinRooseveltgravefranceReportedly devastated by his son’s death behind enemy lines, Theodore Roosevelt died the next year.

“To those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death,” he said.

“Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism.”

A 1930s daredevil dives off the Brooklyn Bridge

August 10, 2015

Since it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been catnip for stuntmen and attention-seekers.

The first jumper was swimming instructor Robert Oldum in 1885, and last year, two German guys climbed to the top of the bridge tower and stuck a white flag on the top.


In the 1930s, a slender man in a one-piece bathing suit calling himself “Dare Devil Jack” does a quasi-jackknife off the bridge, up to seven times, reported the New York Daily News.

Lucky for us, on May 24, 1930, a news crew caught Jack Latkowski diving 155 feet into the East River on film.

From the moment he emerges from a car that’s pulled over to the side of the bridge to his careful climb down to a beam to his plunge into choppy waters, the “New Steve Brodie,” as he’s called, makes it look easy.

Notice how he crosses himself before his feet leave the bridge.


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