Archive for the ‘East Village’ Category

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

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Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

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Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

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La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

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By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

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To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

The sad fate of these Lafayette Street columns

August 1, 2016

You could call it one of New York’s first luxury developments: a nine-building stretch of magnificent marble row houses on the recently laid out cobblestone cul-de-sac of Lafayette Place.

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The new, two-block street was uptown in the late 1820s, when construction, spearheaded by John Jacob Astor, began. Land that had recently been forests and fields was about to become the young city’s most fashionable quarter.

Sing Sing inmates quarried the white marble used to build what would be named LaGrange Terrace (above, in 1895), after the name of the Marquis de Lafayette’s estate in France.

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(Lafayette fever was running high in the city; the Revolutionary War hero had just made a rock star-like return visit to the grateful metropolis in 1825).

Completed in 1833 (above) with amenities like running water, central heating, and bathrooms, LaGrange Terrace was occupied by Delanos, Vanderbilts, and Gardiners, as well as short-term residents Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving.

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“Society liked the seclusion of the street, and houses were soon built on every side of the terrace,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1902.

But fashions change, and Manhattan was on a steady march northward. By the end of the 19th century, the marble row—sandwiched in the light industry district on renamed Lafayette Street—was faded and forlorn.

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After they were acquired by department store magnate John Wanamaker (whose store was on 9th Street), five of the buildings had a date with the wrecking ball in 1902. The columns were reportedly salvaged by a builder who intended to use them in another project.

In the ensuing years, LaGrange Terrace, known also as Colonnade Row, has had its ups and downs. A mansard roof was added, and the grimy columns began disintegrating. But earning landmark status gave the row historic recognition.

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And what about the marble columns bulldozed a century ago?

They turned up decades later outside a boys’ school in Morristown, New Jersey—on property that was once the estate of the builder who salvaged them.

[Top photo: MCNY; second and third images: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia]

The curious fireplace in McSorley’s back room

July 11, 2016

Mcsorleys2016McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in the East Village is the keeper of wonderful old New York relics.

There are framed newspaper clippings from the 19th century, Harry Houdini’s handcuffs, a collection of wishbones left by soldiers who never returned from World War I, and of course, that pot-bellied stove that has kept generations of drinkers toasty.

In the back room is another curious artifact: a fireplace that spells out “Bible House” in gold capital letters under the wood mantel.

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What was Bible House? In the late 19th and early 20th century, you wouldn’t have to ask.

This six-story building at Astor Place and East Ninth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues was the imposing headquarters of the American Bible Society, an organization devoted to printing and distributing millions of bibles.

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Bible House, the city’s first cast-iron building, went up in 1853, replacing the group’s older headquarters on Nassau Street.

Along with the Astor Library (now The Public Theater) and the newly formed Cooper Institute, Bible House helped make Astor Place a hub of intellectual and literary activity.

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Because of its size and appearance, Bible House became a tourist attraction of its own in the late 19th century. The printing rooms inside ultimately cranking out 77 million bibles. Yet as the neighborhood’s fortunes slipped in the ensuing decades, so did the building.

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In 1956, after Bible House was torn down and replaced by a Cooper Union building, McSorley’s apparently salvaged this artifact, preserving it amid the sawdust floors and dusty frames in the bar’s back room.

Hat tip again to Dean at the History Author Show for this story! [Third image: King’s Handbook of New York via the Village Alliance; fifth image: MCNY]

1930s New York made Sunday brunch very trendy

July 7, 2016

Okay, so New Yorkers didn’t invent the concept of brunch. That honor goes to an English writer in 1895, who argued that this combo meal would encourage good cheer and ease Sunday hangovers.

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But when brunch crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the Depression, city residents with money to spare quickly popularized the meal as a festive way to cap off the weekend.

LombardyhotelMCNY“Brunch did not become a New York City culinary experience until the early 1930s, when chef Werner Haechler offered it in the dining room at the Hotel Lombardy, on East 56th Street in Manhattan,” explains Andrew F. Smith in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Also referred to as the bracer breakfast, the tally-ho lunch, or the hunt lunch, brunch at the Lombardy (see photo above and at left) consisted of a buffet from noon until 4 p.m. and cost $1.25.

What was on the menu at New York’s original brunch haunt? Sauteed veal and kidneys, according to this 1939 New York Times article (headline below) on the new brunch phenomenon.

Brunchnytheadline1939Other restaurants soon began whipping up their own brunch, serving buckwheat cakes with sausages and scrambled eggs with bacon, reported the Times.

Fried fillet of flounder, codfish cakes, chicken hash in cream, and Boston baked beans also made their way onto various menus.

As for the alcohol, New York’s liquor laws meant that brunch-goers who wanted to drink had to arrive after 1 p.m. A whiskey sour was a popular starter, along with a “‘velvet,’ a concoction of port and champagne” stated the Times.

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Sunday (and soon Saturday) brunch became even more popular in the postwar years, when incomes rose and church attendance fell.

Menus changed; bloody marys and mimosas became brunch staples in the 1950s. Brunch is arguably more popular than ever—but one thing has changed, besides the price.

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The Lombardy Hotel, still going strong after close to a century in business, no longer serves it. Countless other restaurants do, of course, like the late, great Yaffa Cafe and a place called Mark’s, as seen in these early-1980s ads.

[Top image: Lombardy Hotel via the New York Post; second image: Lombardy Hotel in 1940s, MCNY; third image: New York Times headline 1939; fourth image: Soho News, March 1982; fifth image: East Village Eye June 1984]

The 1904 horse auction house in the East Village

June 30, 2016

Lets say you’re a Vanderbilt, a Belmont, or a Delano, or a member of one of New York’s other super rich families at the turn of the century.

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You have your mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, and for fancy dinners, only Delmonico’s will do. But when it come to transportation, polo, and racing, where do you get your horses and carriages?

The Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart was one option.

13thstreethorsesmcny1910Formed as a general auction house in the 1870s, the company began specializing in show horses and fine carriages for the city’s elite, operating several equine auction buildings along East 13th Street.

With the era of the horse still in swing in 1903, Van Tassell and Kearney commissioned a new showroom and auction building at 126-128 East 13th Street.

After knocking down three row houses, the architects were tasked with creating a lovely structure roomy enough to show and stable horses but so elegant that it attracted the city’s wealthiest clientele.

The new building, completed in 1904, was an unusual beauty. “The central arched window is set within a wide coved band that widens and becomes more three-dimensional near the top,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 2012 report deeming it a city landmark.

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“Crowned by a prominent cartouche and keystone, this feature may have been influenced by the dramatic forms associated with the Art Nouveau style, or perhaps, the padded oval collars worn by horses.”

13thstreethorsesadThe horse auctions were short-lived. The building hosted its last one in 1916, a victim of the automobile age. The Vanderbilts and their brethren were now racing cars, not equines.

In subsequent years it housed a candy factory, a vocational school, and from 1978 to 2005 the studio of painter and sculptor Frank Stella, who cleaned and restored the facade.

Today it’s a dance center, I believe, and one of the last remaining buildings in New York intended for staging horse auctions, a necessity when horses powered the city.

[Second image: MCNY, 1910; fourth image: The Rider and Driver, 1893]

An Avenue A artists enclave called Paradise Alley

June 27, 2016

Paradisealleycourtyard2016Perhaps the name Paradise Alley was meant as a joke.

This little East Village enclave consisted of several small tenement buildings sharing a courtyard on the hard-luck corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street.

Or maybe Paradise Alley was a truly heavenly place to live and work, especially for the painters and writers who made it an unofficial arts colony through the 1960s.

However it ended up with its illustrious name, Paradise Alley has had a long history.

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Built in the 1860s, the walk-up buildings here were home to the waves of German, Irish, and then Italian immigrants who settled in a neighborhood known by turns as Mackerelville, Kleindeutschland, and the northern end of the Lower East Side.

ParadisealleybrooklyneagleThe Paradise Alley moniker supposedly came in the 1920s. By then, many artists and writers had moved in, renting rooms along with regular neighborhood folks for $17 to $25 per month.

That wasn’t small change for poor New Yorkers during the Depression. In January 1933, Paradise Alley residents went on a rent strike, insisting on a 25 percent reduction in rent and the mysterious demand of “proper sanitation facilities.”

PardisealleysubterraneanscoverThe strike led to a wild anti-landlord and anti-police riot after the landlord evicted several tenants, all artists or writers, and left their belongings on the sidewalk.

Paradise Alley’s next claim to fame came thanks to Jack Kerouac, who fell in love with Beat poet Alene Lee, a Paradise Alley tenant in the 1950s.

Kerouac wrote a thinly veiled description of the enclave (and moved it to San Francisco) in his 1958 novel The Subterraneans.

Paradise Alley was “a big 20-family tenement of bay windows . . . the wash hung out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers . . . yelling from stepladders, smells, cats meowing, Mexicans, the music of all the radios . . .” as Kerouac described it.

In the 1960s, Paradise Alley was renovated; 40 families were relocated and rents raised to $80-$135 a month.

Paradisealleyrenovatednyt1960sThe builder hoped it would be a Patchin Place of the East Village. He put in a fountain, gas-lit lamps, and brickface facades. Morgan Freeman and composer David Amram were tenants.

The end came in a 1985 fire. Today, the corner hosts a senior living complex.

Could the 19th century tenement on the other side of the complex’s gate (top photo) be a last fragment of this lost East Village enclave?

Bedford+Bowery has a more in-depth piece from 2013 on Paradise Alley (with terrific photos).

[Second image: Avenue A looking north from 11th Street in 1933, NYC Municipal Archives; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1933; fifth image: a renovated Paradise Alley in 1962, New York Times]

Solitary browsing on Fourth Avenue’s Book Row

June 6, 2016

Manhattan has always had its neighborhoods of commerce and industry, from the Garment Center to the Pickle District.

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And like those two vestiges of the late 19th century city, a booksellers’ district also popped up, this one on the warehouse blocks along Fourth Avenue south of Union Square.

Bookstores4thave10thst1933schultes“That quarter-mile section of Fourth Avenue which lies between the Bible House [at Astor Place] and the vista of Union Square has been for more than forty years the habitat of many dealers of old books,” noted Publishers’ Weekly in 1917.

That means Booksellers’ Row—the fabled enclave where book vendors and lovers came together in dusty storefronts, buying and selling hidden treasures—dates back to the 1870s.

Thanks to the presence of many book publishing offices, “it admittedly is now the ‘Booksellers’ Row’ of the metropolis,” the article proclaimed.

Booksellers’ Row attracted bibliophiles and casual browsers for decades; in the 1950s, more than 40 general and specialty shops lured reader to their mazes of shelves.

boosktorefourthaveessdeross10thst1938These black and white photos, from the 1930s and 1940s, convey mystery and solitude.

Who are these serious-looking readers, picking through bins and piles on tables while the rest of the city thunders along, pursuing progress and profit?

In the 1950s, Booksellers’ Row was on the wane. It was the usual culprit, of course: increasing rents.

“This is their plight: They can exist only in low-rental shops, yet they need tremendous storage space,” wrote the New York Times in a 1956 piece on the dilemma of selling books in New York City.

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By the 1970s, many stores were gone or on the way out, or “scattering” to other parts of the city, as the Times seemed to predict. The article featured a prescient last paragraph:

Bookstoresthestrand1938“The Commissioner [of the city’s department of commerce and public events], something of a sentimentalist, thinks he can prevent this scattering.

“He thinks New York must never go so modern that it must ride roughshod over these mellow places.

“He thinks something essential dies when that happens,” the Times stated.

Today the Strand, opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue and now on Broadway and 12th Street, is the only old-timer remaining.

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[Top photo: Mosk’s, Astor Place, 1935, MCNY; second photo: Schulte’s, Fourth Ave and 10th Street, NYPL; third photo: browsers on Fourth Ave, NYPL; fourth photo: Books and Stationary on Fourth Ave and 11th Street, NYPL; fifth photo: The Strand, 1938; sixth photo: 13th and Fourth Ave, 1930, NYPL]

The magic of old Cooper Square by moonlight

June 2, 2016

Here is a moonlit Cooper Square under a starry sky looking north around 1905.

It’s not a square but a triangular park, a juncture of elevated train routes and avenues, a place where old neighborhood boundaries shifted (like the early 19th century Bowery Village) and new ones (Noho, anyone?) popped up.

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It’s a carnival of history. On the right are modest Federal-style homes with dormer windows, built in the 1820s. Cooper Union’s 1858 Great Hall hosted presidential hopefuls going back to Abraham Lincoln.

A sketchier, pre-boutique hotel Cooper Square in late 1980s was also the site of a peddlers’ market of sorts, where the desperate put out anything they could find (or steal) for sale in an empty parking lot.

Vintage signs from a rough around the edges city

May 30, 2016

Some of these 1970s and 1980s–era signs are losing the battle with the elements, like this hand-painted original for Utica Avenue Electronics (VCRs!) in Crown Heights.

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Others advertise small businesses in a contemporary city that can be cruel to struggling mom and pop shops.

Perhaps that’s why Continental Shoe Repairs on Broadway and Barclay Street is no longer open.

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The sign for Ashland Pharmacy, in Fort Greene, notes that they accept the union plan.

Which union plan? In an older New York, when health insurance wasn’t quite so complicated, the distinction may not have mattered.

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City Water Meter Repair Co., Inc. is the only water meter repair shop I’ve ever seen.

Based on the condition of the sign (N.Y. City!), it looks like they’ve been around since the East Village’s heyday as a slumlord neighborhood.

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You have to love Fort Grene’s Luv-n-Oven Pizza: the rhyming name, the old-school white, green, and red sign, the fact that gyros and hamburgers are on the menu.

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A classic greasy New York corner pizza place that is making me hungry just looking at it.

St. Marks Place was once a posh New York street

April 11, 2016

StmarksstreetsignIn the 1820s, New Yorkers of wealth began leaving the crowded commercial section of the city.

Where to? The new residential drives going up above Houston Street, specifically on the growing city’s East Side.

StmarkshamiltonhollyBond Street, Washington Square North, Bleecker Street, Fourth Street, La Grange Terrace (today’s Lafayette Place) all became elite addresses.

And for a brief period of time, so did St. Marks Place.

St. Marks Place’s rise began in 1831, when developer Thomas E. Davis purchased property on the south and north sides of Eighth Street between Second and Third Avenues.

This stretch of Eighth Street was recently part of Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie. It had only been an open street since 1826, inside the loose boundaries of a small enclave known as Bowery Village.

But New York was marching northward, and Davis intended to capitalize on it. His plan was to build “superior class” homes that would be set back from the street on large lots.

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And to give the block some pizzazz (and copy fashionable street names like Astor Place), he renamed it after nearby St. Marks Church.

Stmarks271890s“Grand, 3-1/2-story Federal style marble-and-brick-clad town houses with balconies were constructed here in 1831,” states this Landmarks Commission Report.

Soon, noteworthy residents followed. In 1833, 4 St. Marks Place was purchased by Col. Alexander Hamilton, son of the founding father.

Among other family members, he moved his widowed mother, Eliza Hamilton, into the house.

Daniel LeRoy, a member of the Fish family, bought number 20 (top right). Writer James Feinmore Cooper occupied number 6.

St. Marks retained its cachet through the 1840s. But as always in Manhattan, the rich fanned north. The street, as well as the neighborhood, slid out of fashion.

Stmarkschildrensaidsociety1890“The neighborhood of St. Marks Place has become of late a much less desirable location that it was formerly….” wrote the New York Times in 1852, referring to frequent cattle drives passing the corner at Third Avenue.

As the wealthy left, and then the cattle drives disappeared, thousands of German immigrants replaced them.

They remade St. Marks Place into a main street in the city’s teeming Little Germany, or Kleindeutschland.

Eastern Europeans, charity workers, gangsters, bohemians, punk rockers, tourists, and college kids all followed.

Stmarksplacetrashvaudeville2Today, just three of Davis’ Federal-style dwellings remain, including what’s now known as the Hamilton-Holly House—where Eliza Hamilton was foreclosed on in the 1840s (right).

The Daniel LeRoy House, in similar not-so-great shape as the Hamilton-Holly abode, is also still standing.

[Newspaper ad: The Evening Post, April 1832; fourth image: 27 St. Marks Place, a Girls’ Temporary Home operated by the Children’s Aid Society, from King’s Handbook of New York; fifth image: 24 St. Marks Place, a group of boys pose for Jacob Riis in 1890 before heading off on an orphan train sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society, MCNY.]