Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

Inside a New York Depression-era “relief station”

December 2, 2019

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist best known for his poetic glimpses of 1930s New York, from East Side tenement backyards to kids playing in a snow-blanketed Tompkins Square Park.

But one painter Kovner completed in 1939 tells a story about what it was like to be poor in Depression-era New York.

“Relief Station” depicts a group of mostly strangers sitting on wood benches in a drab facility, facing forward as if they’re waiting for their names to be called.

Where is this group? In a place New York new longer has, a relief station—where jobless people with no money to buy food or pay rent sought what was known as “home relief.”

Relief stations weren’t new. But with nearly one third of the city out of work at the height of the Depression and a government more willing to distribute relief to people in need, dozens of home relief bureau stations popped up across the city.

Kovner’s painting was part of a series on relief stations; another two are below. The second image comes from painter Louis Ribak, who captured an emotional scene a woman pleading her case to an official behind a desk, and a crowd waiting their turn.

Newspapers also published glimpses of what it was like in a relief station, with readers reporting distressing scenes of people pleading their cases or being treated rudely by an administrator.

Relief stations also became targets for activists—who petitioned (or rioted, depending on the report) for more help for New Yorkers to pay their bills. On at least one occasion, a South Williamsburg relief station was stormed by a hundred people who demanded that relief be given out a lot more quickly.

While we still have home relief—just under a different name—these portraits remind us of what the term used to mean, and how relief stations were part of the fabric of the 1930s city.

Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

November 25, 2019

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via nyhistory.org stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]

Delmonico’s tasty menu on Evacuation Day, 1883

November 18, 2019

Do you plan to celebrate Evacuation Day on November 25 later this month?

Probably not. This holiday has been almost entirely erased from the calendar, thanks (in part) to the popularity of a certain other late November celebration.

But if you lived in New York in the late 18th century to the early 1900s, Evacuation Day was something to commemorate. It marks the day in 1783 when the British finally left New York for good after (brutally) occupying the city during the Revolutionary War.

On that morning, the Continental Army, led by George Washington, marched and rode from Upper Manhattan down to Broadway all the way to the Battery, where a Union Jack flag was taken down and an American flag raised. A celebratory dinner was also held at Fraunces Tavern.

The flagpole had been greased by the British, sparking a tradition of climbing up greased flagpoles every November 25. New Yorkers also fervently celebrated the day with a parade to the Battery, an annual event that officially ended in 1916.

Perhaps the high point of celebrating Evacuation Day came in 1883, its centennial.

Among other events, New York’s premier restaurant, Delmonico’s, put together an Evacuation Day Banquet menu, which is now part of the Buttolph menu collection at the New York Public Library.

Delmonico’s was on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street at the time, an enclave of Gilded Age luxury in Manhattan.

One of the first restaurants to popularize French cuisine, Delmonico’s printed their menus in French—and though I can’t translate all of the items on it, it’s clear that this was banquet was quite a feast!

[Top image: LOC]

Madison Square Garden, luminous by moonlight

November 11, 2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890.

At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the most recognizable buildings in New York City, a palace of inspiration and excitement that hosted everything from boxing matches to the circus to the annual Westminster Dog Show.

By 1907, the heyday of the Garden was coming to an end.

A year earlier, White was murdered on the very rooftop garden he designed. He was shot by the jealous (and mentally ill, a jury eventually concluded) husband of Evelyn Nesbit—the young showgirl White sexually assaulted after lacing her drink years earlier at his East 24th Street hideaway across Fifth Avenue.

This Madison Square Garden became the center of the city’s first trial of the century. The story of the building and the scandal surrounding it (including new information about this most notorious murder) is detailed in the new book The Grandest Madison Square Garden, by Suzanne Hinman.

[Postcard: MCNY Collections Portal, F2011.33.1324]

The 9/11 memorial soaring over Third Avenue

September 9, 2019

“The Braves of 9/11” appeared on Third Avenue off East 49th Street last year, joining these and other memorial murals on New York City streets.

But artist Eduardo Kobra said this last year after his seven-story mural was unveiled, via Time Out New York: “The image contains details that allude to the historical episode. On the helmet, I wrote the numbers 343. This is a reference to the number of firefighters killed that day.”

“There is also a representation of the Twin Towers, and the flag of the United States. The stars represent all the lives that were lost in the tragedy—which left nearly 3,000 dead. Lastly, the colors have one goal: To pass on a message of life, of a restart, of reconstruction.”

The tragic story behind Harlem’s St. Clair Place

June 3, 2019

St. Clair Place is one of Upper Manhattan’s forgotten little roads; it cuts through a few low-rise blocks between the Henry Hudson Parkway and West 125th Street.

The street isn’t very pretty. But it’s a lovely name, and you might imagine that it belonged to a former church or old hotel in this once-bucolic stretch of the city once known as Manhattanville.

But the street name probably comes from something distressing: the death of a beloved young boy.

St. Clair (also spelled St. Claire) Pollack was a 5-year-old who lived in the late 1700s with his family on a large estate called Strawberry Hill.

On July 15, 1797, the child fell to his death from the bluffs onto the shore of the Hudson River. (The riverside as it looked in 1814, at left)

St. Clair’s family, prominent merchants in the area, buried this “amiable child,” as it said on his tombstone, on their estate.

The family didn’t stay long. In 1800, they sold the estate to a neighbor, Cornelia Verplanck. St. Clair’s father (or uncle, it’s not clear) requested in writing that his son’s grave not be disturbed.

“There is [a] small enclosure near your boundary fence within which lies the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument,” he wrote, according to a 1917 New York Sun article.

“You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey this enclosure to you, so that you will consider it a part of your estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn prepared to place on the monument which will not lessen its beauty.”

Verplanck did honor Pollack’s request, and so did later owners of the property. Eventually the land became part of Riverside Park.

Here, in a grassy stretch of park north and west of 122nd Street, the tomb of St. Clair Pollack—now the Amiable Child Memorial, under the care of NYC Parks—remains as his family wished two centuries ago.

The grave sits behind an enclosure. (At right, in 1897; left, in 1920). A newer funeral urn and tombstone replaced older ones that suffered under the elements.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh like a flower and is cut down he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not,” reads the stone.

In the late 19th century, with the construction of Grant’s Tomb nearby, there seemed to be great interest in finding out who St. Clair was. An account from the New York Times in 1900 presents a different family background.

The street was officially renamed St. Clair Place in 1920.

[Second photo: NYC Parks; fourth photo: NYH-S; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3159; sixth image: New York Times 1900]

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 one painter saw on Armistice Night, 1918

November 12, 2018

Almost exactly 100 years ago, social realist painter George Luks—who honed his artistic skills in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1896—captured this scene on the night World War I ended.

“In Armistice Night, as in his earlier illustrations, Luks does not deliberate over particulars: the painting is a blur of American and Allied flags, faces, and fireworks,” states the Whitney Museum of Art.

“Blue smoke obscures the buildings in the background, and few individuals stand out in the quickly-rendered crowd. Typically, Luks was more committed to capturing the spirit of the moment than to transcribing visual facts—in this case the action and human drama in a celebratory crowd.”

I only wish I could positively identify the location. Union Square?

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

A hidden city park named for a murdered activist

October 29, 2018

Walk to the far end of East 51st Street, past the bishop’s crook lamppost of lovely Beekman Place, and you’ll find yourself at a dead end blocked off by a cast iron fence.

The high, spectacular views of the East River are enchanting. But there’s more to this spot than immediately meets the eye.

To your left beside the Gothic-style entrance of a prewar apartment building, you’ll see the beginning of a stairway—then steep steps surrounded by brownstone. They’re like a portal to a mysterious part of Turtle Bay few know about or visit.

The steps take you to Peter Detmold Park, a quiet strip of gazebos, park benches, and a dog run beside the river, with trees partly shielding the FDR Drive.

The serenity of this hidden park stands in contrast to the tragedy that inspired its name.

Peter Detmold (below) was a World War II veteran who made his home in Turtle Bay Gardens, the beautifully restored brownstones spanning East 48th and East 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues.

As president of the Turtle Bay Association, he led the fight in the 1960s and early 1970s to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“When landowners began to rent out office space in residentially zoned areas, Detmold defended the rights of tenants and homeowners, protecting the quiet, neighborly spirit of the area, now a designated historic district,” states the NYC Parks website.

But Detmold’s time as a community activist was cut short.

On the night of January 6, 1972, after walking home from a Turtle Bay Association meeting with two colleagues, Detmold was murdered in the stairwell of his apartment building.

“According to police reports, the 48-year-old Detmold was stabbed as he entered his five-story walk-up building,” explained Pamela Hanlon in her book, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: The Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“He struggled to reach his top-floor apartment, but collapsed on the stairwell, where a neighbor found him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.”

The park was named for Detmold later that year. Almost half a century later, his murder remains unsolved.

[Third photo: Getty]