Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

All the ways to get around Brooklyn in 1915

April 22, 2019

I count six transportation options Brooklynites had in 1915, according to this rich and detailed postcard of Flatbush Avenue.

There’s the elevated train, of course, as well as a streetcar, automobile, bicycle, horse and wagon, and of course, getting around on foot, as most of the crowd seems to be doing—when they’re not mugging for the camera against streetlights.

[MCNY F2011.33.2138C]

When “play streets” let New York kids run free

April 15, 2019

It’s unusual to see groups of kids playing in the streets of New York City anymore. (At least without an adult supervising.)

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with parents at work and tenements too crowded for game-playing anyway, kids were free to roam the cityscape—running around sidewalks, playing ball in the middle of the road, or just sitting on the curb, horsing around.

The street wasn’t a safe place to play, of course. Newspapers headlines of the era tell the stories of countless children being injured or killed by cars or horses.

A public playground movement was underway. But by the 1910s, only 30 had been opened, and not always in the poor neighborhoods that needed them most.

So park officials and the Police Athletic League came up with a novel alternative so popular, they still exist today: play streets.

“Every afternoon (except on Sundays), New York City’s play streets were closed to traffic so children without easy access to parks or playgrounds could have a safe space to run, play games and practice sports,” explains Thirteen.org, the website for Channel 13.

The first play street opened in July 1914 on Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey Streets. Signs were posted so motorists knew to drive elsewhere; vendors were shooed away.

“The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival—turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation,” stated Thirteen.org.

Soon, play streets began popping up everywhere, with 29 more opening in Manhattan that year. In 1924, play streets came to the outer boroughs, too.

Clearly play streets were a lot of fun for kids. What could be better than running free across the block with your friends, without worrying if you’ll be crushed by horse hoofs or run over by a car?

But parks officials had different motives for opening play streets. One was to prevent kids from becoming criminals.

“What would these children be doing if they were not playing in the street? Many of them would be learning to become criminals,” stated a 1915 New-York Tribune article, quoting a committee of officials.

“A boy must play, so must a girl. If it is made illegal for him to play the natural and pleasant games of childhood, he will substitute something else.”

Another play streets goal was to solve what the Tribune called the “dance-hall problem.”

“Let boys and girls become accustomed to each other. Let them think of each other as playmates and not mysterious creatures whom they may not know until they grow older, and foolish and sentimental, and much of [the] vice problem will be solved,” the newspaper quoted Charles Liebler, the organizer of the original play streets.

Whether the “vice problem” was solved or not, play streets and the street games kids played are memorialized in this plaque on a Mulberry Street fence.

[Top photo: The Atlantic; second photo: MCNY, 1900, 90.13.2.250; third photo: MCNY, 1908, 93.1.1.3171; fourth photo: MCNY 96.184.197; fifth image: NYPL 1936; sixth photo: MCNY, 1935, 43.131.11.183]

The men who worked the Brooklyn docks in 1912

February 25, 2019

Painter George Bellows captured early 20th century New York’s lovelier moments: a blanket of bluish snow over the Battery, a girl’s enchantment with Gramercy Park, and carefree boys swimming off an East River pier.

But this social realist also cast his eye on the city’s grittier scenes. “Men of the Docks,” completed in 1912, is one of those—showing us a group of men literally pushed to the margins of Brooklyn, where they’ve gathered on a raw morning at an East River pier and face uncertainty.

These day laborers, “await jobs on the docks of Brooklyn on a grey winter morning. The towers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance,” states London’s National Gallery, where the painting hangs.

The “bobbed-hair bandit” on the run in Brooklyn

February 11, 2019

Like other working-class girls in 1920s Brooklyn, Celia Cooney had big dreams.

Celia (at right and below) was a 20-year-old newlywed who toiled in a laundry. She and her husband, Ed, shared a furnished room on Madison Street in a neighborhood then called Bedford, today’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Celia and Ed were very much in love. But like many young couples, they had a hard time saving money. Ed didn’t make much as a welder, and Celia enjoyed nice things, like the sealskin fur coat Ed bought for her.

So when Celia found out she was pregnant, the Cooneys decided they needed to shore up their finances. How? By committing armed robbery.

That’s the genesis of the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit,” as Celia was dubbed by the press. Together the couple (below, in their wedding photo) would stage holdups of Brooklyn groceries and drugstores and become Roaring Twenties tabloid icons.

Their first robbery was at a Roulston’s, a grocery chain in Park Slope. On the evening of January 5, the two drove to the store on Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street.

Wearing her fur coat, Celia went in first and asked for a dozen eggs, according to the 2005 book, The Bobbed-Hair Bandit, by Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson.

As the clerk readied her purchase, Ed entered the store. Celia pulled an automatic out of her pocket, pointed it at the clerk, and yelled, ‘Stick ’em up, quick!’ just as the bad guys in the detective stories and pulpy novels she devoured would say.

Ed then whipped out a gun in each hand and cleaned out the cash register. The two took off with more than $600.

The next day, the brazen heist made by a slight, five-foot woman and her male partner ended up in the Brooklyn Eagle, with the headline “Woman With a Gun.”

Celia and Ed went on to commit several more robberies. The newspapers giddily wrote up each hit, making much of Celia’s bobbed hair—a daring style popular with flappers and other women who saw themselves as modern and liberated. Ed was dubbed her “tall male companion.”

After the first robbery, the couple immediately rented a two-story frame house at 1099 Pacific Street. They bought pricey furniture, and Celia made her husband a special dinner of porterhouse steak, states The Bobbed-Hair Bandit.

But they quickly spent their loot…and had to commit more robberies to keep up their new higher-end lifestyle.

With so much tabloid exposure, the police were under pressure to capture the “girl robber.” That led cops to arrest and charge a 23-year-old bobbed-haired Brooklyn actress named Helen Quigley for the crimes.

Angry that the police had arrested an innocent young woman, Celia left a note for them after she and Ed robbed a Clinton Hill drugstore.

The note was addressed to the “dirty fish-peddling bums” and ordered them to let Helen Quigley go—which eventually the police did.

Celia and Ed’s stick-up spree finally ended in early spring, after a warehouse worker at the National Biscuit Company on Pacific Street was wounded during a holdup.

“Panicked, the couple fled, leaving behind $8,000 in an open safe,” wrote the New York Times in 2015. “A warehouse employee recognized Ed from the neighborhood, and the couple was soon identified.”

By then, they had taken off for Florida, where Celia gave birth to her daughter on April 12, who sadly died days later.

After the couple was arrested and brought back to New York (above, mobbed by crowds at Penn Station), they pleaded guilty and landed 10 to 20 years in prison.

Paroled after seven years, the couple went on to have two sons. (Finally free and reunited with their lawyer, above.)

Ed died of tuberculosis in 1936. As for Celia, she reportedly was a “dutiful and selfless mother, working to support her boys, one of whom became a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church,” continued the Times.

“It was not until a few years before she died in 1992 that her middle-aged sons learned about the Bobbed Hair Bandit.”

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second image: Newspapers.com blog, Fishwrap; third image: Brooklyn Eagle; fourth image: Library of Congress; fifth image: Buffalo Commercial; sixth image: author collection; seventh image: New York Daily News; eighth image: Getty Images]

What remains of 3 old-school corner drugstores

January 14, 2019

Neon signs, decorative mortar and pestles, brass chandeliers, wood shelves with sliding ladders…there’s a lot to love about New York’s longtime independent pharmacies.

Many of these corner stores have been in business for over a century, yet have somehow resisted getting steamrolled by Duane Reade.

I don’t know how long M&M Pharmacy has been on Avenue M and East 19th Street in Midwood. But the signage, at least, dates to the 1940s.

The corner neon sign with the Rx is a wonderful relic—and when was the last time you saw the word “toiletries” on a store sign?

The English lettering on M&M’s weathered neon sign looks very 1940s (the Cyrillic script, clearly, is not quite as old).

But inside the store, past the wood shelves, are Art Deco–inspired signs at the prescription counter that look like they’re from the 1920s or 1930s. (Thanks to D.S. for getting the inside and outside views.)

Another old-school corner drugstore that caught my eye is Health Wise, on York Avenue and 79th Street.

The website says this pharmacy has been run by the same family since 1992. But based on the gorgeous neon sign that casts a lovely glow at York Avenue and 79th Street, I wonder if the store has been there a lot longer.

Also in Yorkville on First Avenue and East 65th Street is Goldberger’s, in business since the Spanish American War. It’s the signage on the sides of the store, however, that make me feel like I’ve stepped into a noir.

Cosmetics, drugs, prescriptions…and then the fanciful Goldberger’s lettering, in script. New York drugstores had everything. Now if only this sign still lit up in neon!

[Top 3 photos: D.S.]

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.

Ghost signs of New York’s small business past

December 24, 2018

All the turnover lately among the small shops of New York City has one upside: Store signs from decades ago that had been long buried come back into view—like these two signs spotted by Ephemeral New York readers.

The first is at 7105 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst. Up until recently, it was covered by a sign containing Chinese letters, a reflection of the influx of Chinese immigrants in this corner of Brooklyn.

But when that sign came down, this understated one for Charlie & Brothers Fish Market emerged. The building dates back to the 1930s, and the sign looks like it could be that old too.

Apparently the store had been a fish market until the 1990s under a different name, Mola. Who was Charlie?

Just as mysterious is this sign on Seventh Avenue and 56th Street, for an establishment called Wilson’s.

The small store is surrounded by the usual Midtown jumble of tourist spots, cafes, and electronics shops. The entire building has construction scaffolding around it, so it probably won’t be with us much longer. What remains of Wilson’s is destined to be bulldozed with the larger building it’s part of.

[Thanks to Eric V. and Amy S. for these photos!]

Brooklyn’s secret old-school comic book store

December 17, 2018

Tucked beside the elevated subway tracks on McDonald Avenue in Gravesend is Pinocchio Discounts—just about the best name ever for a comic book and baseball card store that looks like a holdout from a totally different Brooklyn.

My guess is that the sign goes back to the 1970s; I almost expect the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter to be inside.

A Yelp review says the shop has been owned by the same couple for 30 years, but it must be older than 1988. Yelp and Google reviewers give the place a definite thumbs up.

[Thanks to Ephemeral reader D.S. for the top photo. Second photo: Yelp]

“The subway is a microcosm of New York City”

November 19, 2018

We may never know what printmaker Harry Sternberg was thinking when he etched this rich, detailed scene inside a city subway car (appropriately titled “Subway Car”) in 1930.

But I like Nicole Viglini’s take on a web page published by Smith College Museum of Art in 2015: that Sternberg, who was born on the Lower East Side in 1904 and as a kid took free art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, depicted a microcosm of New York City.

“Though people from many different walks of life are present together, they do not directly interact with one another,” Viglini wrote. “A couple chats in the foreground, and a few shady-looking men look askance; everyone else seems to be absorbed in their own thoughts.”

“The ads above the seats remind the viewer of the busy commercial madhouse above ground. Within the confines of the subway car, hurtling through tunnels beneath the chaotic city, there is a measure of calm and a respite for people to regain some modicum of control.”

The Oldsmobile sign that once lit up in Brooklyn

November 5, 2018

Oldsmobile has come and gone, but this vertical neon sign on Flatbush Avenue and Avenue D still stands. It seems a little out of place—was this an area of car dealerships in postwar Brooklyn?

That seems to be the case. This corner brick building at 1217-1219 Flatbush Avenue was the home of Gaines Motor Co., an Oldsmobile dealership, as this ad from the Daily News in October 1963 shows.

The dealership lasted at this location into the 1960s. But to my knowledge the sign hasn’t glowed gorgeous neon for years; I’m not even sure the clock works.

The sign is rusted and the green has faded, but it stands as another totem of New York’s past.

[Photo courtesy of D.S.]