Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements

October 17, 2016

The tenement is a New York invention—typically a six-story residence shoddily constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to capitalize on a surge in population and the need for cheap yet affordable housing. (Below, 10th Avenue and 57th Street)


These “nurseries of pauperism and crime,” as reformer Jacob Riis deemed them in 1890, housed three-quarters of New York’s population in the late 1800s.


Tenements (like the one above at University Place and 13th Street) then were “packed like herrings with human beings,” wrote the city board of health in an 1873 report.


For decades, rows and rows of them filled entire blocks. Yet these days, with developers knocking down old buildings and putting up luxury apartments and offices, there seems to be an uptick in single tenements sticking out of the cityscape with nothing on either side. (Above, Tenth Avenue and 30th Street)


These tenements are ghostly remnants that look eerily out of place and abandoned, even when window curtains and lights make it clear that tenants live there. (West Street, above)

lonetenementbellowsThere’s something haunting about a tenement standing alone. Painter George Bellows realized this.

His 1909 “Lone Tenement” (at left) shows a deserted brick walkup in the shadows under the then-new Queensboro Bridge, a representation of the displaced, cast-off men warming themselves by a fire nearby.

lonetenementgrabachAnother social realist painter of the early 20th century, John R. Grabach, was also touched by the lone tenement.

His 1929 work, “The Lone House,” is a portrait of abandonment—of a tenement and people.

Some of today’s lone tenements might be next in line for the wrecking ball. Others stay up perhaps because their owners refuse to sell to developers.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd others await development to creep in and surround them—like this tenement on East 14th Street, which stood unmoored and alone for a few years and is now encased on either side by the concrete shell of a future apartment building.

Check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, for more on the history of the New York tenement.

What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court

October 10, 2016

New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.


And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.

jeffersonmarketstairsIt’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).

Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.

Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.

This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.


There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.

jeffersonmarketcourtdoorUpstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.

Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.

The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.

Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.


It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.

jeffersonmarketnyplsketchcriminals“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.

“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”

Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”

For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.


This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).


Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.

jeffersonmarketgarden-orgToday, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.

Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?

[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]

A Salvation Army Art Deco fortress on 14th Street

August 29, 2016

In 1880, eight missionaries sent to the U.S. by the British-based Salvation Army disembarked at Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan.


Ridiculed at first, the group’s presence and influence grew, particularly in New York, where “officers” ran rescue homes, soup kitchens, and lodging houses and the evangelical mission turned into what founder William Booth later dubbed “social salvation.”

SalvationarmywikiAnd of course, they launched the tradition of setting up kettles on busy corners, asking for Christmas dinner donations for needy families.

So when it came time to build national headquarters in the 1920s, Gotham got the nod.

In 1930, a concrete and steel Art Deco complex consisting of offices, an auditorium, and Centennial Memorial Temple opened.

A women’s residence hall was also part of the complex, its entrance on 13th Street.

Though no longer the Salvation Army’s national HQ, the fortress-like structures of 14th Street stand as examples of streamlined Art Deco beauty and perfection.


The complex was designed in part by Ralph Walker, the architect behind New York Art Deco masterpieces such as the Verizon building (now the pricey residential Walker Tower) in Chelsea.


New York is resplendent with Art Deco: movie theaters, offices, apartment residences, and even subway entrances.

[Second photo: Salvation Army Headquarters from 14th Street, Wikipedia]

A robber baron gunned down in a Broadway hotel

August 15, 2016

JimfiskwikiIf ever a New Yorker could be described as an unscrupulous, gaudy vulgarian, it would be “Jubilee” James Fisk.

“He was a striking figure, tall, florid, very fat,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York. “His light brown hair was pomaded and carefully waved, his mustache waxed to fine points, and huge diamonds blazed on his frilled shirt front and pudgy fingers.”

Fisk was a financier, unprincipled and notorious even in a Gilded Age city that celebrated greed and showiness.


In 1868 he and his business partner, Jay Gould, were responsible for the Black Friday stock market crash, the result of their plan to manipulate the price of gold.

They made millions off the scheme, though, just as they profited handsomely after they joined forces with Boss Tweed to gain control over and loot the Erie Railroad.

“He never pretended to be governed by anything but expediency and self-interest,” wrote Morris. “And he conducted his life in full view of the public.”

JImfiskgrandcentralhotelThat may have been Fisk’s fatal mistake. Because when another business partner decided to kill him, he knew exactly where to find him.

That would be Edward Stokes, who entered the picture in 1869. The flashy son from a well-off New York family, Stokes convinced Fisk to invest in a deal to reopen an oil refinery in Brooklyn.

Stokes got money from Fisk—and he also ended up with Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield (below), a would-be actress who had “an exquisite figure and perfect features, large black-lashed eyes, magnificent glossy black hair,” wrote Morris.

Mansfield and Stokes were now the talk of the town; everyone, including Fisk, eventually knew about their affair.

JimfiskjosiemansfieldMeanwhile, by 1871, Fisk’s and Stokes’ refinery deal went sour. Unless he paid him an additional $200,000, Stokes threatened to release a series of love letters between Fisk and Mansfield that presumably reveal Fisk’s shady business practices.

After some legal maneuverings, Fisk had Stokes and Mansfield indicted for extortion.

When Stokes found out about the extortion charges on January 6, 1872, he packed his pistol, went to the Grand Central Hotel—a new hotel on Broadway and West Third Street popular with Fisk’s posh and powerful crowd—and waited for Fisk, who was due to meet friends there.

“He knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so Stokes went in first and waited on the second floor landing,” states Murder by Gaslight.

Jimfiskfranklesliesweeklycover“When he heard Fisk climbing the stairs Stokes started down saying: ‘now I’ve got you.’”

Stokes fire point blank. Fisk cried out in pain, and Stokes shot again. Fisk collapsed on the staircase leading to the lobby but gave a dying declaration that Stokes was his killer.

His life ended the next morning at age 36. Stokes served four years in prison.

Fisk was the consummate Gilded Age robber baron, yet he had his admirers, many of whom paid their respects in the foyer of the Grand Opera House on Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, where Fisk had his offices and his body lay in state.

JimfisklayinstateBrooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher had disparaged Fisk as “the glaring meteor, abominable in his lusts and flagrant in his violation of public decency.”

But younger New Yorkers who came of age as the Gilded Age began seemed to admire his “smartness and shrewdness,” explained Morris.

“In refusing to be bound by the traditional moral code, in declining to become the prisoner of convention and decorum, in rejecting the easy compromise of hypocrisy, Jim Fisk had shown an intrepidity that compelled their admiration,” he wrote.

Power, greed, lust, corruption—the Gilded Age was one of notorious crimes and murder trials, as The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available now for pre-order, lays out.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo, MCNY, 1910; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: via Minneapolis Star Tribune; fifth and sixth images: covers of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 1872, NYPL]

Confusion and despair in the Tenderloin District

June 16, 2016

At night, the Tenderloin was the city’s red-light district during the turn of the century, a center of sex and sin that blazed with light and put high-rolling millionaires in proximity to lower-class drinkers, gamblers, showgirls, and prostitutes.


During the day, with its veil lifted, the Tenderloin revealed its gritty despair. In “Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street,” John Sloan depicts a confused, distressed woman as others stare or pass her by with indifference.

Sloan seemed to have a fascination with the Tenderloin; the same year, he painted the neighborhood’s “loud and lurid” club, the Haymarket.

New York is a brick and mason wall ghost town

January 18, 2016

The construction boom across the city has this upside: after an old building has been flattened by the wrecking ball, its faded outline remains behind for a little while, before something new and shiny covers it up.


These building phantoms give city streets an eerie vibe; they’re red brick and mason wall palimpsests of another New York. Look at the little chimneys that warmed what looks like a former Federal-style home on Bond Street?


In Downtown Brooklyn, traces of a two-story tenement on the right hint at what kind of residences lined the streets of the independent city in the 19th century.


On East 17th Street in is a reminder of what this Flatiron block looked like when it was all low-rises, not tall lofts.


This corner building in Chelsea must have cut a handsome, sturdy profile. The rooms of the second floor are still outlined too.


Back when Jane Street was just a tiny lane in the village of Greenwich, there was a little house under this steep little roof.

Welcome to Poverty Gap, a 19th century slum

January 4, 2016

Povertygapwest28thstreetManhattan in the late 19th century had some awful slum districts. Not all of them were downtown.

“The city is full of such above the line of Fourteenth Street, that is erroneously supposed by some to fence off the good from the bad, separate the chaff from the wheat,” wrote journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis in 1890’s How the Other Half Lives.


One small stretch of hardship in the geographical middle of the city was Poverty Gap, a stretch of West 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues.

Riis’ image (above) of the inside of a Poverty Gap tenement, “an English Coal-Heaver Home,” reveals just how terrible conditions were.


“The father . . . earned on the average $5 a week ‘when work was fairly brisk,’ at the docks,” wrote Riis, a Danish immigrant. The entire family, including a baby, slept on a pile of rags, he added.

Poverty Gap, home of a group of “roughs” called the Alley Gang, appears to have been one of the city’s few mixed-race neighborhoods.


In 1899, the New York Times reported that a black man who shot and mortally wounded a white burglar was almost lynched.

What became of this hardscrabble enclave? Riis visited again in 1908 and found that the Alley Gang had dispersed and one of the city’s first public playgrounds (above) took the place of a rundown tenement.

Povertygapplayground21890“The toughs were gone, with the old tenements that harbored them,” he wrote in Children of the Poor. “A decent flat had taken the place of the shanty across the street where a ‘longshoreman kicked his wife to death in a drunken rage.”

“And this play-ground, with its swarms of happy children who a year ago would have pelted the stranger with mud from behind the nearest truck—that was the greatest change of all. The retiring toughs have dubbed it ‘Holy Terror Park’ in memory of what it was, not of what it is.”

Far West Chelsea has had a colorful past, its small alleys and enclaves long forgotten, like Franklin Terrace.

[Photos: Jacob Riis]

New York inspires “The Night Before Christmas”

December 14, 2015

Nightbeforechristmas1901‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”

It’s the Christmas classic that helped create the image of the modern Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who arrives on a reindeer-driven sleigh, sneaking down chimneys on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with toys.

First published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” became an instant hit. In the 1830s, it was revealed to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore, the descendant of a colonial English family, lived with his wife and children on a vast inherited estate called Chelsea in what was then the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Nightbeforechristmas1886As a theology professor, Moore wrote dry volumes inspired by ancient cultures.

But the whimsical and imaginative “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is surely influenced by life in early 19th century New York City.

The poem “he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father’s imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue,” explained a New York Times piece from 1926.

He wrote it, “simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of a ‘portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.”

ClementclarkemoorehouseLegend has it that Moore wrote the poem on a snowy day while riding in Chelsea in a sleigh.

“His Santa Claus was supposedly based on the family’s plump and jovial Dutch handyman, and it was while being driven home one night that the jingling bells on the horse inspired the poem,” according to When Christmas Comes, by Anne Harvey.

That sleigh ride may have been taken for a last-minute shopping trip to get a holiday turkey for charity. (Above, a drawing of Moore’s Chelsea home, before he subdivided the property and helped develop the residential neighborhood.)

Nightbeforechristmas1900A document that was part of a Santa Claus exhibit at the New-York Historical Society two decades ago showed that “Moore was a slave owner, and some historians have recounted a journey to the market to buy a Christmas turkey, the event said to have inspired the poem, in a sleigh driven by a slave,” reported the New York Times in 1995.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” borrows the image of an airborne, tobacco-smoking Santa Claus from Moore’s literary contemporary, writer Washington Irving.

“In 1809’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving described St. Nick flying over the treetops, bringing presents, smoking a pipe, and ‘laying his finger beside his nose,’ stated the Museum of Play.

The red suit was added later, but otherwise, This version of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus is the one we know today—though I think the pipe has been axed in these smoking-averse times.

Nightbeforechristmas18982Every December for more than a century, the beloved “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is read aloud at the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street.

A candlelight procession then heads up the street to Trinity Cemetery, where Moore and his family members are buried.

If you can’t make it to the reading at the church, give “A Visit From St. Nicholas” a read this season.

[Images of rare 19th-20th century volumes of the poem courtesy of]

Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

November 16, 2015

FrenchquarterboulangerieThe Germans had Kleindeutschland in the East Village. The Chinese had Mott Street. Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side.

And from the 1870s to 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in today’s Soho, roughly between Washington Square South and Grand Street and West Broadway and Greene Street.

Bakeries, butchers, cafes, shops, and “innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner, vin compris, may be had for the veriest trifle” occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.


An 1879 article in Scribner’s Monthly took readers on a wildly descriptive sojourn through the Quartier Francais, as the writer calls it.

FrenchquarterrestaurantIt’s not always so flattering. “The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

The writer of the article walked readers past tenements, with young girls fabricating fake flowers inside, to cafes where patrons drink absinthe.

A shop run by an old woman features this sign: “sabots et galoches chaussons de Strasbourg.” A restaurant called the Grand Vatel (right) “has some queer patrons.”

FrenchquartertavernealsacienneOn Greene Street is the Tavene Alsacienne (left), with its “impoverished bar” and worn billiards table, and groups of coatless men absorbed in their games.

Table d’Hote restaurants abound. “In the French Quarter in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, and elsewhere downtown, are several unique and low-priced establishments of this character,” according to King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Frenchquarter2015Like so many ethnic neighborhoods, this French Quarter didn’t last. By the turn of the century, the city’s small French colony relocated to West Chelsea.

“Twenty-sixth Street west of Sixth Avenue begins to take on the air of the old French Quarter,” reported The Sun in 1894.

“It has several French restaurants, three or four French shoemakers . . . a French grocer or two, and several French bushelling tailors.”

[Top image: NYPL Buttolph Collection of menus; sketches from Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879]

Vintage signs from 1960s and 1970s New York

October 5, 2015

They’re an endangered species, these 1960s and 1970s store signs, with their old-school cursive lettering and often sporting a kaleidoscope of colors.


The sign for Murray’s Sturgeon Shop is a gorgeous example.

Short, sweet, and stylized, the sign looks very 1960s, though Murray’s has been in the smoked fish business on Broadway and 89th Street since 1946.


The Weinstein & Holtzman Hardware sign bursts with magnificent color on Park Row near City Hall. They’ve been selling paint and tools sine 1920.

Hardware stores all over New York have some wonderful vintage signs.

I can’t find any information on when Truemart Discount Fabrics, on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street, opened.


But that old-school sign! It’s a relic of lower Seventh Avenue’s low-rent past, influenced by the Fashion Institute of Technology across the street.


The sign for Anthony Liquors, Inc. on Spring Street in Nolita isn’t splashy, but the typeface is unique. I wonder if other store signs in what once was Little Italy had the same type.


I’ve always liked the sturdy, simple sign for John’s Shoe Repair on Irving Place, and the confident line underscoring the name John, done in script.

I hope they can keep going in a city that doesn’t have much use for neighborhood shoe repair places.