Archive for the ‘East Village’ Category

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.


“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

An East 10th Street townhouse inspired by India

November 2, 2015

The building materials of New York’s row houses don’t vary very much: brownstone, brick, mason, glass.


But teakwood? This hearty wood native to South Asia is a rarity in the city, which makes the gorgeous 1887 townhouse at 7 East 10th Street so noteworthy.

TeakwoodhouseacrossstreetThe house itself isn’t remarkable, but the beautifully carved teakwood on the bay window and trim attracts many admirers.

Who made the house such a show stopper? Lockwood De Forest, an artist and decorator who worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Asian-inspired artifacts were a popular design motif at the time, and De Forest himself was enamored with Indian woodcarving, arranging for craftsmen in India to make wood carvings that could be shipped to America.

While Asian decorative elements were often found inside late 19th century parlors, De Forest made the unusual decision to incorporate them outside on the facade.


“His elaborately carved teakwood projecting bay and trim on the otherwise ordinary town house is one of this city’s marvels, both for its intricate artistry and for its having so heartily survived the elements all these years,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.


For reasons lost to history, teakwood trim also ended up next door at 9 East 10th Street, built in 1888, a building called the Ava.

In 1900, House Beautiful magazine called it the “most beautiful Indian house in America,” according to These days, the dazzling and well-preserved home is owned by New York University.

Body parts wash ashore the East Side in 1897

October 26, 2015

GuldensuppenackThe upper half of the torso and arms were found first, on June 26, 1897, by boys playing on a pier off East 11th Street.

The rest of the torso came ashore near High Bridge. The legs showed up off the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The body was that of a well-built man who had been alive just a few days before, according to the medical examiner. But who was he?

The gruesome details gripped the tabloids, which investigated the story along with the police.

Clues soon emerged, thanks to tabloid reporters bent on solving the murder—and selling more papers. The man had strangely soft hands, and his body parts were wrapped in a distinctive oil cloth with a red and gold floral pattern.

GuldensuppethornjailDetectives traced the seller of the cloth, who pointed police in the direction of a Danish midwife named Augusta Nack (above).

Workers at the Murray Hill Turkish Baths on 42nd Street identified the body as that of William Guldensuppe, a German masseur.

Guldensuppe was a tenant in a West 39th Street building owned by Nack. Apparently Nack was also living with a barber named Martin Thorn (left), and the three were involved in a love triangle.

By July, police had arrested Nack and Thorn, thanks to a confession Thorn gave to a barber friend.

According to the confession, Guldensuppe had beaten Thorn senseless after he found him in bed with Nack. So Thorn decided to kill his rival by luring him to a house in Queens.

GuldensuppenackjeffersonmarketAfter shooting him in the back of the head with Nack in the house as well, Thorn said that “we threw him into the bath-tub, and while he was breathing heavily I cut off his head with a razor, and stripped the body.”

Thorn sawed the body, put the head in plaster, and wrapped body parts in the oilcloth, then threw everything into the East River while taking the ferry back to Manhattan with Nack.

GuldensuppenacknewspaperIn December 1897, a jury found the couple guilty. On August 2, Thorn was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Nack served 10 years in prison upstate, then fell into obscurity.

This “trial of the century” earned its name not only because of the bloody details—but the way the press inserted themselves into the story and made 1897 a banner year of yellow journalism.

[Top photo: New York Times; second: LOC; third: New York World; fourth:]

The East Village hippie who ran for president

September 14, 2015

Third-party candidates for president tend to come from out of the mainstream. That’s the case with Louis Abolafia, a 27-year-old East Village artist.


In the 1960s, Abolafia, the son of a florist, made a name for himself as an abstract expressionist painter who staged happenings around the Village and helped shelter teenage runaways in his East Fourth Street apartment.

LouisabolafiaposterA nudist who came up with the cheeky campaign slogan “What Have I Got to Hide,” Abolafia decided to run for president in the 1968 election.

His ticket was the “Love” party, according to a New Yorker article from 1967, and his campaign kicked off with a “love in” at the Village Theater.

“In running for the Presidency I’m trying to bring about a world unity,” he told a crowd there.

“We should be a country of giving and giving and giving. The way we’re going now, we’re all wrong. We could be giants; we should be 10 times above what the Renaissance was.”

Abolafia scored some attention from the media. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (as a candidate for the Nudist Party) and distributed a poster of himself naked except for a bowler hat.

Amazingly, he received 300,000 to 2 million votes that November, but it wasn’t enough to beat Richard Nixon.

Louisabafolia“Louis decided to run for president because he understood that to be an artist, you have to do something a little outstanding,” his brother Oscar, a celebrity photographer, told Bedford and Bowery in 2013.

“Even today, don’t we look for people who are a little off the wall? I think my brother started that whole movement, doing something that’s off the wall so people notice you.”

After the publicity died down, Abolafia moved to San Francisco. His next appearance in the national press was his obituary in 1995, after he died of a drug overdose.

The short life of Strangers’ Hospital on Avenue D

July 20, 2015

Strangershospital2015Built in 1827, the brick building at 143-145 Avenue D, at Tenth Street, is the oldest structure in Alphabet City.

The many-times-remodeled building served first as the Dry Dock Banking House, then as a laundry, cigarette factory, clothing store, even a squat.

But for three years, from 1871 to 1874, it was the Strangers’ Hospital, an institution built by John Keyser, a manufacturer turned philanthropist who had already funded a lodging house called the Strangers’ Rest on Pearl Street.

In a benevolent-minded, Gilded Age city, he established a home “for the relief of suffering” for the “deserving sick poor.”


It was not intended, “for the benefit of the wealthy, who in times of sickness can command the comforts of a well-ordered home and the attendance of a skillful physician of surgeon,” said the president of the Strangers’ Hospital on opening day in February 1871.

“Nor yet for the beggar who leads a life of dissolute idleness . . . . It is intended for the succor and restoration of the deserving sick poor, and in an especial manner for that sadly numerous class of people in this great city who have seen better days.”

BereniceabbottavenueDFour stories high, the Strangers’ Hospital had space for 180 beds, plus a reading room, chapel, and mineral baths.

Keyser, however, ran into some trouble in 1873. That’s the year the city finally indicted politico Boss Tweed and his ring for a host of crimes.

Keyser was exposed as as member of the Tweed Ring; the implication was that his “philanthropy” was in fact funds from city coffers.

The Strangers’ Hospital shut its doors, and Keyser declared bankruptcy.

Off the Grid put together a wonderful 4-part series on 143-145 Avenue D’s long, fascinating history.

[Middle image: from New York and Its Institutions: 1609-1872; bottom photo: 145 Avenue D in 1937, by Berenice Abbott]

Congratulations to these old New York graduates

June 8, 2015

It’s commencement season, the perfect time to look back at images of long-ago graduates posing in class photos. What in the world became of them?


The suited up boys in this 1915 photo, new graduates of P.S. 64 at 605 East Ninth Street, look like they’re going places in life.

P.S. 64 opened in 1906, not long after the consolidation of the city, a time of huge investment in new school facilities. “Organized around two courtyards, it was the first elementary school to have an auditorium with direct access to the street, allowing this structure to serve an expanded role in the community,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.


Brooklyn Friends is a private school in downtown Brooklyn founded in 1867. This is the class of 1943, decked out in graduation suits and gowns.


Elementary and high schools aren’t the only institutions that hold a commencement ceremony. Meet the 1885 nursing school graduates from Broad Street Hospital, formerly at the end of Broad Street.

News photographer George Bain captured this image of the graduates of the “Cripple School” on the Lower East Side’s Henry Street in 1912.


Officially known as the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School, the school intended to “provide the crippled children of the Lower East Side with facilities for securing an education and learning a trade, so that they may become self-supporting,” according to a 1920 guide.

“Workrooms maintained where older cripples fill orders for all kinds of needlework and hand stitching and paper boxes.”

The day McSorley’s bar finally admitted women

May 25, 2015

Mcsorleys1940s“Is woman’s place at the bars?” asked a 1937 New York Times article.

This was several years after prohibition, and for the most part, drinking establishments in New York City, once for men only (respectable 19th century women wouldn’t want to enter a bar), had become coed. Some even welcomed women, or at least their business.

But one of the few taverns opposed was McSorley’s Old Ale House (above, in the 1940s), the East Seventh Street bar open since 1854 and believed to be the city’s oldest pub.


“There are not many taverns so stoutly arrayed against the female invasion,” the Times wrote. “McSorley’s continues in the tradition that woman’s place is in the home, or, if she must take a nip occasionally, that her place is elsewhere, anywhere, but not at McSorley’s.”

This was the McSorley’s whose motto was “good ale, raw onions, and no ladies,” a place for mostly working-class men but also artists and writers.


In 1925, e.e. cummings wrote his famous poem with the opening line, “i was sitting in mcsorleys.”

And John Sloan’s paintings (above) depicted a warm, old-time tavern with  mahogany bar, resident cats, and men drinking pitchers of ale in cheer.

McsorleyswithwomentoastingEven in the mid-1960s, the men-only rule stood. “Once in a while, a woman will enter and get as far as the pot-bellied stove,” Harry Kirwan, the present owner, says, “but they generally leave as quickly as they came,'” stated a Times piece from 1966.

But times change. Fast forward to 1969 (photo of two women outside McSorley’s, above). A lawyer from the National Organization of Women filed a federal sex discrimination case against McSorley’s. The judge ruled that this was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The final nail in the coffin came in 1970, when Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting sex discrimination in public places, including bars.


On August 10, 1970, they opened their doors to their first female customer (above photo, from the Times). The day before, many of the old timers at the bar bid good-bye to the all-male preserve.

“Dennis Cahill, who is 83 and has been a customer for the last 62 years ‘off and on,’ said: ‘Well, I don’t care. I don’t think they’ll come in much. A decent woman wouldn’t come into a place like this,'” wrote the Times.

Neglected subway signage from another New York

February 23, 2015

OldsubwaysignagechamberscloseupIt’s been decades since the MTA introduced the spiffy white-on-black subway station signs on platforms that clearly spell out the name of each station.

But they didn’t get rid of all the scruffy signage from decades past. Some 1970s-era examples can be found in some of the grungier corners of subterranean New York City.

Exhibit A: these long-neglected old-school signs at the Chambers Street 1, 2, and 3 train station.


I guess someone made a half-hearted attempt to cover up the old “Chmb’rs” sign, then gave up after coating half of it in the blue paint used for the rest of the wall.


At Astor Place, it looks like someone souvenir-hunting tore off the newer Astor Place or Cooper Union signs, revealing this unglamorous one-word sign below.

Five hero firehouse dogs of old New York City

December 15, 2014

FirehousedogsNew York has had firefighters since Dutch colonial days, first in the form of volunteers and then, beginning in 1865, a professional paid force.

And in the days of horse-drawn engines and a less-sophisticated alarm system, firehouse dogs played an important role.

Often a stray who found his way to the house or an unwanted pup given to the chief, many these canines served their companies heroically, explains 1897 New York Times piece.

FiredogjacknytimesThere was Jack (left), of Hook and Ladder Company 18, on Attorney Street. He’s described as a “large, sober-looking, brown-and-black shaggy full-bred shepherd dog” by the Times.

“When the alarm rings, Jack hurries the horses by biting at their hind legs,” stated the Times.

“He runs with the team, directly in front of the engine, and when the scene of the fire is reached is the first to investigate, dashing recklessly in amid the smoke and flames.”

FiredogbarneynytimesJack reportedly would use his teeth to drag the hose up the stairs of a burning building, and when pleased “will show his teeth and laugh in a perfectly Rooseveltian manner.”

At Engine 25 on Fifth Street, Barney (right) was the resident fire mutt.

“At a fire in Engel & Heller’s wine cellar recently one of the men was overcome by the smoke,” noted the Times.

“Barney saw his comrade’s danger, and, remaining by his side, barked furiously until the others investigated and found the unconscious fireman.”


Spot, of Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, also earned kudos. “She goes into all the fires, unless too hot, and has distinguished herself for her bravery a number of times,” wrote the Times.

Firedog1920mcny“At command she bounds on the shoulders of a fireman, or on the back of one of the horses. The latter she makes her special charges . . . barking when they chance to gnaw at the pole straps.”

In 1936, on something called Animal Hero Day (sponsored by the New York Anti-Vivisection Society), a 3-year-old dalmatian named Susie, from Engine Company 2 on Lafayette Street, scored top honors.

Susie “was sunning herself in front of the firehouse when she smelled smoke in a paper twine warehouse next door,” stated the Times. “Her frantic barks brought the firemen and the blaze was put out.”

Firedog1905mcnyBut perhaps no dog was honored for bravery more than Chief, a stray who hung around Engine Company 203 in Brooklyn in 1929 and stayed for 10 years.

While helping with firefighting duties, “’Chief’ received numerous injuries, such as: cuts from broken glass and falling debris, burns from scalding water, and bruises from falling off the fire engine,” states the website of the New York City Fire Museum.

“His hallmark rescue was in 1936, for which he won 4 medals of honor. On November 21, a fire broke out in the Bermudez home in Brooklyn.

Firedogchief“Sixteen year-old Johnny Bermudez escorted his family part way downstairs but went back to the fourth floor to get his cat. ‘Chief’ ran into the building and returned carrying the cat, with his teeth.”

After being killed by a car in 1939, firefighters had Chief stuffed and mounted in the firehouse. Today, he belongs to the Fire Museum (above).

[Top and bottom photos: NYC Fire Museum; photos 2 and 3: NYTimes; photos 4,5, and 6: MCNY digital collection]

An 1838 East Village townhouse’s radical history

November 10, 2014

When the handsome townhouse at 110 Second Avenue was built in 1838, Second Avenue was shaping up to be a posh residential street, with other Greek Revival homes going up alongside it for merchants and assorted wealthy New Yorkers.


An elite Second Avenue didn’t last long. By 1844 the merchant owner of the house declared bankruptcy, and after a few more owners and Second Avenue’s slide into a less respectable German immigrant enclave, the home was purchased by the Women’s Prison Association.

IsaachopperFormed in 1845, the Women’s Prison Association was one of the many benevolent organizations addressing social conditions in the 19th century city.

Group founders Isaac Hopper (left) and his daughter Abigail Hopper Gibbons (below) were already known as fervent abolitionists.

But they also took a strong interest in women’s prison reform, appalled by the conditions of female jails and the lack of support incarcerated women received once they were back in their communities.

AbigailhoppergibbonsAfter taking over the house in 1874, the group renamed it the Isaac T. Hopper house (he died in 1852) and turned it into the first halfway house ever for women who were newly released from prison.

“The home’s original mission was to rehabilitate these women by providing short-term shelter, religious counseling, domestic training in sewing and laundry work, and job placement,” states the Landmarks Preservation Commission report designating it a historic landmark.

“The aims of the management of the Home . . . is to prevent the recently liberated prisoners from falling back to their former evil courses, and to make an upright life easier for them,” explained King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Isaachopperhouseold“The privileges of the institution are free to the inmates, of whom their are about fifty.”

Throughout the 20th century, the home continued as a halfway house, quietly assisting hundreds of women per year.

It serves the same purpose today, an easy-to-miss house that’s undergone almost no remodeling since its 19th century beginning. It blends right into Second Avenue’s mix of bars and bodegas and tenements.

[Photo bottom left: via the Women’s Prison Association]


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