Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City

January 16, 2017

On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.

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After arriving and meeting up with Naomi’s older sister Josie, a Manhattan resident, the family settled into the West 118th Street home of their host, a Mrs. Purdy.

naomicentralparkmallThrough early February they did what most first-time tourists do: they visited museums and Central Park (left), window-shopped stores, took in the Bowery, and saw the seashore at Coney Island.

What makes King’s visit so unique is that it occurred in January 1899.

And because King kept a travel diary (part of the Archives & Manuscripts Collection at the NYPL), contemporary readers get to experience the Gilded Age city as it appeared through her impressionable eyes.

naomicentralparkbandLike any trend-driven tween, King wrote about the clothes displayed in stores like Stern’s (top image) in the Ladies Mile shopping district.

“We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” she wrote.

She saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

naomizoo1895mcny93-1-1-18316The family strolled the mall in Central Park “under the arches of the beautiful trees whose branches interlaced overhead” and saw the bandstand (above) “where Sousa’s celebrated band plays all during the summer. . . . “

They were impressed by the lions (left) and hippos at the zoo. “Beside [the lions was] the royal Bengal tiger and his mate next to him in a separate cage, while a horrid hyena paced up and down his cage.”

King and her parents gawked at the mansions of Fifth Avenue. “We passed Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s elegant residence (below right). . . . “

naomiwkvanderbiltmansion“A little farther on we saw old Mr. Vanderbilt’s residence and a wealthy gentleman Mr. Rockefeller whose mansion is even finer than the Vanderbilts.'”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the family visited some of the city’s notorious charitable institutions, which King wrote about movingly.

On Randall’s Island at the House of Refuge (below), kind of a 19th century reform school, she saw boys working in the institution’s laundry department.

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“We passed however a large hall of locked cells which the larger boys sleep,” she wrote. “They lock them up to prevent making their escape.”

Also on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War city.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“We . . . went to the baby residence, the home of the little waifs who were picked up out of the city’s ash barrels and dark alleyways. They looked so frail in their white  cot beds. . . . There are so many babies and yet not one little face that looked like another.”

What became of King after her visit I wish I knew.

But her travel diary stands as a testament to the wonder and tragedy of New York on the cusp of the 20th century.

The Gilded Age in New York includes these excerpts from King’s diary—as well as diary excerpts from other New Yorkers of the era. Many thanks to the NYPL for permission to cite the text in the book.

[Top three photos: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth photo, MCNY: 93.1.1.18316; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]

A vintage pharmacy relic on University Place

December 24, 2016

whitneychemistsscaleHere’s something you won’t find at Duane Reade or Rite-Aid: an old-fashioned pharmacy scale.

This relic of old New York’s neighborhood drugstores can be found just inside the entrance of Whitney Chemists on University Place off Ninth Street.

It’s a packed-to-the-gills pharmacy time machine and one of the city’s rapidly disappearing independent drugstores.

And where was the scale—now weathered and a little beat up—manufactured? Brooklyn USA is stamped beside the 250 lb. mark.

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The Detecto Scale Company began producing medical scales in 1900 in Williamsburg, but how old this one is and how long it’s held court just inside the 50-year-old pharmacy entrance is a mystery.

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The one thing I forgot to check: if the scale actually works!

[Third photo: Yelp]

The beginning and end of the Brooklyn Marathon

November 7, 2016

Runners have been crossing the Central Park finish line of the New York City Marathon, cheered on by thousands of fans, since 1970.

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But Brooklyn beat Manhattan on the marathon front by decades. Starting in 1908, Brooklyn began holding its own marathon—on chilly February 12, President Lincoln’s birthday, no less.

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For the 1909 race, “the runners started at the Thirteenth Armory in Crown Heights, ran along Ocean Parkway, then past Coney Island’s silent amusements to Sea Gate and back, a 26-mile run,” wrote John Manbeck in Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn.

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These photos from 1909 show us the 150 runners at the start being sent off by thousands of onlookers . . . and then the first and second-place winners.

The marathon appears to have been held in fits and starts and modified versions through the 1920s, then quietly disappeared.

[Photos: Bain Collection, LOC]

Hanging up the wash in a Brooklyn backyard

October 31, 2016

This bucolic scene of a woman hanging clothes to dry in the sun really is in Brooklyn—the Brooklyn of the 1880s, that is, a boom time that gave the city new neighborhoods, parks, and of course, the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase lived in Brooklyn from 1887 to 1890, and he often depicted it in his work: Prospect Park, Tompkins Park, and the East River were popular subjects.

“Wash Day—A Backyard Reminiscence of Brooklyn” shows a more intimate side of life in Kings County in a still country-like section of the city. A lone figure hidden behind a bonnet and in the shadows pins sheets to a clothesline, a necessary but mundane task no machine was available to do.

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]

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Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]

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He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]

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This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]

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As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]

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What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]

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And despite the work of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]

That time a Dodgers fan beat an umpire in 1940

October 7, 2016

It happened on September 16, 1940. The Brooklyn Dodgers, stuck 10 games behind first-place Cincinnati, were playing the Reds at Ebbets Field in front of 6,782 fans.

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Among those fans was a 21-year-old petty criminal named Frank Germano, who lived at 128 33rd Street, opposite Green-Wood Cemetery, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

dogersfrankgermanoleadawaygettyimages“Game after game, [Germano] had sat on a hard wooden seat, [and] watched his beloved Dodgers, in second place in the National League, try to overtake the first-place Reds,” explained Life magazine two weeks later.

The Dodgers were in the lead until the Reds tied the game in the ninth. In the tenth inning, umpire George Magerkurth called two Reds runners safe after Dodger second baseman Pete Coscarart dropped the ball.

Cincinnati won the game—and the Dodgers were left to finish out another pennant-less season.

“Frank Germano sat stunned,” wrote Life. “He knew the runner was out. . . .  Just as the last Dodger was put out, Frank stood up on his seat, yelled ‘Burglar! Burglar!’ rushed out on the field, swung on Magerkurth, tripped him, started to pummel his face.”

“Magerkurth, who weighs 245 pounds, fought back,” continued Life. “There were curses, hard stinging blows.”

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Eventually the two were separated by other umpires. Germano “paid for his enthusiasm by being lodged in the Raymond Street klink after his arraignment on charge of third degree assault,” wrote The Eagle.

dodgerfanfrankgermanolifemagazineDespite his unsportsmanlike behavior, Germano had plenty of support in Kings County. Eagle sports columnist Jimmy Wood had this to say: “Pardon us for smirking, but we can’t get broken up about that young fellow taking the bull by the horns yesterday out at Ebbets Field.”

Germano “may have done something no law-abiding citizen of baseball can ever do with impunity—assault an umpire—but he has fulfilled the secret ambition of millions of fans.”

So what happened to Germano? Ultimately Magerkurth decided not to press charges, and after a judge set him free in April 1941, Germano left the courthouse in Flatbush only to encounter the umpire he tackled.

The two men shook hands and went their separate ways, the Eagle reported.

[Top photo: Life magazine; second photo: Getty Images; third and fourth images: Life magazine]

Remnants of four obsolete Brooklyn street names

October 3, 2016

In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman noted the “pull-down-and-build-over-again” spirit of his hometown, which was beginning its transformation from a collection of towns and villages to a united urban city.

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Part of that transformation meant renaming older streets—to commemorate contemporary heroes, for example, or fix confusing street names that go back to when each individual town or village had its own street grid.

Some of these renamed and obsolete street names still remain carved into the corners of old tenements. Take this one above, marking Macomb Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.

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Macomb Street? Named for an early New York merchant and land surveyor, the road was renamed Garfield Place after the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 “at the requests of residents who said Macomb Street was often confounded with Macon Street,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1883, referring to another street in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Then there’s this engraved sign, noting Third Street and North Sixth Street in Williamsburg. My hunch is that as Williamsburg developed and grew, having two number streets intersect was probably confusing.

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The solution: rename Third Street Berry Street (after the first mayor of Williamsburg during its tenure as its own city), which it remains today.

Back up to Greenpoint again, Franklin Street used to intersect with Madison Street. What happened to Madison? It was rechristened Oak Street—perhaps because there already was another Madison Street in Bedford Stuyvesant.

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That might also be the case with this tenement corner carving, putting us at State Street and Powers Street in Boerum Hill. Powers Street is now Third Avenue, a change likely necessitated to avoid getting mixed up with Powers Street in Williamsburg.

[A big thanks to Ephemeral reader Force Tube Avenue for sending in these photos of old Brooklyn street corners!]

The faded, falling apart signs for city laundries

September 30, 2016

I’ve always wondered: why do so many of New York’s laundry places and dry cleaners have store signs that look like they’re about to fall apart or haven’t been freshened up since the Carter years.

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This is not a criticism; I love coming across signs that have seen better days and bring us back to a different New York. But while so many other types of businesses update their signage frequently, laundry signs tend to look like forgotten relics.

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The French Cleaners on Columbus Avenue is now closed. But the sign feels very space age 1960s. Same with Reliance Cleaners, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.

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This launderers sign on Christopher Street is a favorite; it’s colorful and neat with a 1970s vibe. Grand Cleaners in East Williamsburg has the same old-school feel.

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This second French Cleaners sign in Fort Greene is hard not to love. The faded blue background! That mini Eiffel Tower! I hope it lights up after dark.

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Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

September 26, 2016

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.

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But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.

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It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.

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Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.