Archive for the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Category

The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

July 7, 2017

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]

New York’s old public bath buildings still inspire

May 29, 2017

The public bath movement got its start in New York in 1849. A wealthy merchant established the “People’s Bathing and Washing Association” and funded a public bath and laundry on Mott Street for anyone who paid a small fee, states the Landmark Preservation Commission.

The Mott Street facility went out of business in a few years. Yet the idea of establishing public bathing facilities gathered steam.

A campaign in 1889 convinced New York to build a network of free or low-cost bath houses that would offer visitors a “rain bath”—or a shower, as we call it today.

Public baths with showers were long overdue. Only the rich had private indoor plumbing.

New York City’s thousands of tenement dwellers might have been lucky enough to rely on a spigot in the hall for water, but few had a place to bathe.

Meanwhile, the idea of bathing for hygiene and to stop the spread of disease was gaining traction.

A city committee in 1897 decided that “cleanliness of person is not only elevating in its effects upon the mind and morals, but also necessary to health and to the warding off of disease.”

So the city went on a bath-building frenzy. A public bath (with a five-cent fee) had already gone up on Centre Market Street in 1891.

In the next two decades, more would be built in the tenement districts: East 11th Street (second photo), Rivington Street, Allen Street, Clarkson Street, East 23rd Street (third photo), East 38th Street, West 54th Street (fourth photo) and West 60th Street (fifth photo) among them.

How popular were the baths? During the hot summer months, riots practically broke out, according to one account in the New York Times in 1906.

But the rest of the year, they weren’t well used. As bathrooms with showers became standard features in apartments, the public baths’ popularity took another dive.

By the late 1950s, only three still operated, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Though all the baths have long been shuttered, what’s amazing is how many of them still exist—and how lovely they are, despite their varied architectural styles.

They were constructed during the “City Beautiful” movement, when public buildings were supposed to inspire. And the surviving bath houses, all long-ago converted for some other use, still do that, especially with touches like ornamental fish and tridents on the facade.

[First photo: MCNY x2010.11.11413; third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: New York Times; fifth photo: Michaelminn.net

The World War I doughboys of New York City

April 6, 2017

No one quite knows where the term “doughboy” originated.

Coined in the 19th century, it may have come from the doughnut-like buttons on soldier uniforms, or it might stem from their doughy rations.

But this nickname for the millions of American infantrymen (and thousands of New Yorkers) who fought in World War I endures—as do the bronze doughboy statues that were funded by veterans’ groups and ordinary citizens after the war’s end in November 1918.

With April 6 marking the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into what was then known as the European War, take a look at a few of the nine doughboy statues standing in city parks and corners.

At the top right is the doughboy of DeWitt Clinton Park in Hell’s Kitchen—an excerpt from war poem “In Flanders Fields” carved in granite below him.

The Abingdon Square doughboy, pistol at the ready above, has graced this West Village pocket park since 1921.

The money for the statue was raised by the Jefferson Democratic Club, whose headquarters across the street at 299 West 12th Street were replaced by a handsome apartment building.

In Bushwick’s Heisser Triangle (above) stands a statue honoring the 156 men from the neighborhood who died in the war. Charles Heisser was a local kid who lived two blocks away and was killed in action in France in 1918.

The Red Hook Memorial Doughboy (left) is proud and triumphant; he commemorates the approximately 100 residents of this corner of Brooklyn who gave their lives to the war.

About 2,400 Brooklyn residents made the ultimate sacrifice, reports a 2001 New York Times piece on crumbling memorial statues.

Chelsea has its own doughboy as well, and hey, it’s the same guy who modeled the Abingdon Square doughboy (below right).

“To the Soldiers and Sailors of Chelsea” the granite behind him says at Chelsea Park on Ninth Avenue, as he holds his rifle protectively.

Doughboy statues aren’t the only way city residents commemorated the end of the war, of course.

In Central Park and Brooklyn, memorial trees were planted and plaques laid down—like these hiding in plain site on Eastern Parkway, which honor individual soldiers who never made it back from Europe.

[Third photo: NYC Parks; Fifth photo: Alamy]

The brick and mortar ghosts all over Manhattan

January 16, 2017

The history of New York City is written on its walls—the walls of apartment houses and commercial buildings still standing, bearing the faded outline of those that met the bulldozer long ago.

ghostbuildingfourthave12thstrete

These phantom buildings are on every block (above, Fourth Avenue and 1oth Street), especially in today’s city with its constant renovation and rebuilding—what Walt Whitman called “knock down and pull over again spirit.”

ghostbuilding11thave

The roofs of these faded ghosts are often slanted and peaked—hints that a Federal-style house or stable once existed there. I’m guessing this outline on 11th Avenue in the west 20s, above, was a stable.

ghostbuildingrectorstreet

Many of the outlines resemble the shells of tenements. This phantom at Rector Street, above, is likely all that remains of an anonymous tenement where generations of New Yorkers lived and raised families.

ghostbuildinglafayettestreet

The ghost building on Great Jones Street near Lafayette Street above, with what appears to be the outline of three chimneys, looks too short to be a tenement. Probably just a walk-up with a couple of flats per floor.

ghostbuilding3rdavemountsinai

The painted-white outline here on Third Avenue in Gramercy could have been a single family home, similar to the one on the left side of the photo hidden behind scaffolding.

ghostbuilding57thstreet

On West 57th Street a lonely tenement bears the remains of its neighbor, which had what looks like a central chimney or rooftop exit door.

ghostbuildingwestside

Is this the ghost of another stable or carriage house? It’s on the far West Side around 42nd Street, where the city’s last remaining working stables are.

Rock-throwing and gunfire on Election Day 1864

November 7, 2016

If you think the 2016 presidential election has been brutal, consider the violence triggered by the election of 1864—as seen through the eyes of a bright 9-year-old boy living in a tenement district on Eighth Avenue and 57th Street.

lincolnmcclellansupportersfight

That year, incumbent President Lincoln was up against General George B. McClellan. “The campaign was very bitter on both sides in our neighborhood,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor who published his memories of the Civil War–era city in Tell Me of Lincoln.

lincolnbookcoverKelly remembered his pro-Lincoln father, “having rows with the Copperhead neighbors.” Copperheads, of course, were Northerners who were against the Civil War.

There were plenty of Copperheads in New York, who felt the war was bad business for New York merchants. Thousands of immigrants, many Irish, who had fought in the war were also disenchanted.

Many Irish women, Kelly wrote, “thought if McClellan were elected on ‘The War is a Failure’ platform, their husbands would come back from the front.”

With a war going on, much was at stake—and it showed in city streets.

‘The streets were overhung with banners, decorated (or defaced) with so called portraits of Lincoln and Johnson and McClellan and Pendleton,” wrote Kelly. “There were the usual torchlight parades, and the air echoed with glorification of ‘Little Mac,’ and the abuse of ‘Old Abe.'”

lincolnjohnsoncampaignpostercurrierives“The very curbstones were covered with election posters called ‘gutter snipes.'”

After a brutal campaign season, it was finally Election Day, a holiday in the city. On that cold, rainy morning, Kelly left his house to a polling place.

“I peeped in the doorway. Along the counter were some large glass globes . . . .There was a slit in the top, through which was dropped the folded ballot. . . . The room was filled with tobacco smoke, though I could dimly make out the glint of a policeman’s buttons.”

“Before I could see more, I was hustled aside by a crowd of drunken roughs, who joggled the undisciplined voters swarming in and out at will. I saw a crowd on the corner rush through 57th Street. I followed them to near Sixth Avenue, where they ran into another crowd, and began to pelt one another with stones.”

lincolnelection1864electinoneering

“Then a shot snapped out. The crowd ceased fighting. . . . The man who had been shot was half lying, resting on his right arm, with his left hand on the wound in his breast, groaning heavily.”

“Hustled aside by the crowd, I trotted homeward, joining the other boys collecting ballots which were scattered thickly upon the sidewalks  and along the gutters.”

lincolnelectionpollingplacenyplAt day’s end, the action was only beginning, with Election Night bonfires illuminating the sky.

“The short November day began to darken. According to the English custom, a voice rang out, ‘Hear ye! Hear ye! The polls are closed!’ The crowd made a charge for the election boxes, carting them off to be used for the fires later that evening.”

“Night came on, cold, bleak, and drizzly. . . . The boys who had been stealing barrels for a month or so, now rolled them out of their cellars, or carried them on their heads in triumph. They built them into mounds before touching them off.”

lincolnmccellanposter“With yells of a gang of large boys, the grocer’s wagon was hauled along and run into the flames, but was rescued by the frantic German.”

“Boys danced around and jumped through the flames, till at last, they were hauled off by the ear or the neck by their enraged mothers who had been hunting for them. Finally, the rain scattered the rest, and the embers died down under its dreary beat.”

The results weren’t in until the next morning. While Lincoln received only 33 percent of the vote in New York City, voters from the rest of the country gave him a second term.

lincolnelection1864nyt

“Next morning, my father was up bright and early, and called to us, ‘President Lincoln re-elected.’ Then we sat down to a joyous breakfast, while he read aloud the details of the victory.”

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverKelly wouldn’t yet know that at the end of November, a group of Confederate sympathizers would attempt to burn down New York. The plot was foiled, and it turned many residents against the South and pro-Union, hoping for victory.

Interestingly, McClellan’s son, George B. McClellan Jr., became New York’s mayor from 1904-1909.

Read about the Plot to Burn Down New York City in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

The bloody past of Manhattan’s West 39th Street

October 28, 2016

abattoirrowsignWest 39th Street close to the Hudson River is an unglamorous road of Port Authority bus ramps, plus traffic from the Javits Center and the ferry station across 12th Avenue.

It’s not a pretty three or so blocks. But this concrete stretch is nothing like it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when West 39th Street was one of New York’s bloodiest streets.

Nicknamed “Abattoir Row,” the street was the center of Manhattan’s slaughterhouse district (previously on Mulberry Street), where cattle delivered to the city via ferry or rail line were penned in stockyards before being led into factories, turned into beef, and destined for New York dinner tables.

abattoirmcnysollibsohn3-131-6-162The earliest abattoirs appeared there in 1850, according to an Evening Post article, which counted 43 separate buildings.

“Running through these cellars will be laid a number of pipes, to carry off the blood and filth to a sewer in the rear. . . .”

“A thorough system of ventilation by means of pipes is embraced in the design, and will do much towards preserving the health of those living in the vicinity,” wrote the Post.

abattoir1877nyplv-l-kingsburythemanhattanabattoirCattle drives were a familiar site on the far West Side even after the turn of the century.

“Well into the 20th century, cattle drovers would close off 39th, 40th and 41st Streets between 11th and 12th Avenues and herd the cattle from pens to their destinations,” wrote Michael Pollack in his FYI column in the New York Times in 2013.

“Cattle runs across 40th Street continued into the mid-1950s, to a division of Armour & Company a block from the pens. . . . In 1955, an aluminum-sided bridge was built 14 feet above the street so the cattle could walk their last quarter-mile without disrupting traffic.

abattoirnypl1877kingsbury

A cow bridge is one thing—a cow tunnel even more fascinating. To dodge traffic, cattle coming into Manhattan via Hudson River barges in the late 19th century were herded through a tunnel under 12th Avenue to the abattoirs on West 39th Street.

abattoirad1922Abattoir Row disappeared in the 1960s. The cow bridge has long since been torn down.

And the tunnels? According to Pollack, “if remnants of the tunnels still exist, they may have disappeared beneath the Javits Center.”

This well-researched article does a deep dive into where the cow tunnels might be and how long ago they were in use.

West 39th Street in the old Tenderloin district also had a dicey reputation—of an entirely different kind.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1938 by Sol Libsohn; 43.131.6.162; third and fourth images: NYPL, “The Manhattan Abattoir,” 1877 by V. L. Kingsbury; fifth image: 1922 ad]

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)

lonetenementwest57th

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.

lonetenementuniversityplace

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.

lonetenement10thave30thst

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)

lonetenementweststreet

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.

lonetenement14thstreet

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.

The cat rescued from a Hell’s Kitchen mailbox

August 26, 2016

Cat antics and exploits make for irresistible clickbait—come on, who doesn’t love keyboard cat? But felines were huge media stars in the pre-Internet era too.

Case in point: Blackie, a sleek inky furball who ended up inside a mailbox in Hell’s Kitchen just before World War II. Here she is, posing for renowned crime and police photographer Weegee.

Blackiegettyimages

The story of her misfortune and rescue is a bit of a tearjerker. “A garage worker called the cops when he heard meows issuing from a box in Hell’s Kitchen, but they couldn’t do anything about it, April 29, 1941,” the original photo caption states, per Getty Images.

“They had to call the Post Office. A mechanic opened the box and found Blackie. Whoever threw her in also tossed in a couple of clams and some pretzels.”

No word on what happened to Blackie after her rescue and turn as a media darling—or who tried to mail her.

[Hat tip: researcher extraordinaire History Author. Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images]

The beautiful apartment house hidden from view

May 9, 2016

1940 tax photo via New York Landmarks Conservatory; third photo:

The Dakota, the Ansonia, the Chelsea, the Apthorp: most city residents recognize these as some of New York’s earliest and most magnificent apartment houses.

Windermeremichaelminn2

But the Windermere? Hidden behind scaffolding for years, this Renaissance Revival beauty on Ninth Avenue and 57th Street (above, mostly scaffold-free) has been forgotten.

Still, imagine how lovely the romantically named Windermere must have been in 1881, when it was one of the first apartment houses on the rapidly developing West Side—home to well-off residents, then “bachelor girls,” and a century later, SRO tenants.

Windermere1940WSJ“The interior is separated into five divisions, which comprise 38 suites of apartments, each containing from seven to nine rooms, and each furnished with a buffet, sideboard, and pier glass,” the New York Times described it.

“For the convenience of tenants who do not wish to cook in their own apartments, large kitchens are situated in the basement.”

With the noisy, belching Ninth Avenue Elevated railroad so close, the Windermere wasn’t top-of-the-line luxurious.

WindermerelandmarksBut it had plenty of amenities: three resident elevators, steam heat, a telephone, electric bells that rang attendants, a fire alarm, an open-air inner courtyard, uniformed “hall boys,” and separate passageways for delivery wagons.

The rent? Between $600 and $1,000 yearly, according to Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 2005.

By the 1890s, the Windermere advertised itself as an apartment house for the independent New Woman of the era, who was educated, employed, and desired a place of her own.

That often meant renting a room in one of the larger apartments. The Windermere offered single women “a congenial home where she can live at moderate cost,” reported the Times.

WindermeremichaelminnDuring the 1900s, the bachelor girls began moving out; the neighborhood’s slide into a more working-class enclave meant that tenants in what was now Hell’s Kitchen were now stenographers, chauffeurs, and waiters.

Fires plagued the building. Owners came and went. By the 1960s, drug users and prostitutes moved in . . . and a not-yet-famous Steve McQueen.

In 1985, the Windermere’s owner—who tried to harass the few remaining tenants into leaving—made the Village Voice‘s list of the city’s worst landlords.

The scaffolding and netting began wrapping the building at least a decade ago. Fire safety inspectors forced the remaining tenants out in 2007.

Windermere2016

A new owner came in (and was named to another worst landlord list) with plans to turn the Windermere into a boutique hotel.

Perhaps this diamond in the rough will emerge a beauty again.

[Top and fourth photos: Michaelminn.net; second photo: 1940s NYC Municipal archives photo via the Wall Street Journal; third photo: 1940 tax photo via New York Landmarks Conservatory]

Catching a West Side horse car in a winter storm

January 18, 2016

With its network of privately owned horse cars, elevated railroads, and trolleys, New York in the mid- to late-19th century had a relatively decent public transit system.

Streetcar34thbroadway1899mcny

But getting around could be rough in bad weather, especially in one of the horse cars—the way thousands of workingmen, shop girls, and other New Yorkers regularly traveled.

Streetcardriverchristmas“The cold, bitter gale from across the Hudson River nearly swept me into the sunken lots, as I waited at the lower corner of 57th Street for the horse car to come down Eighth Avenue,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor, of an episode that happened during his boyhood on the West Side in the 1860s.

“The wail of the wind through the telegraph wires on the lofty poles gave additional dreariness. Then the sharp scrape of horses’ shoes on the cobblestones seemed to add to the tingling cold.”

Each horse car had a driver, who sat on top and wore a wool cap and “a soldier’s overcoat with the cape brought up over his head,” wrote Kelly. A conductor was also in the car, clad in “a large fur cap” and “a huge seedy overcoat, ragged and patched at the pockets from being worn away by making change.”

The cars seated 13 passengers on each side; a trip generally cost a nickel. Riders could also sit up front with the driver or stand outside on front and rear platforms.

There was no heat in the cars, of course. Piles of straw thrown across the floor, like a barnyard, offered some insulation from the elements. Two kerosene lamps at each end of the car glowed weakly at night.

Streetcarblockadebowery

“The window panes were so encrusted with ice and frost that one had to scratch it off to see the street,” Kelly remembered when the car was on its way to Vesey Street. “I began to get restless, so I went out on the front platform, where I found great pleasure in watching the straining muscles of the lean horses.”

Streetcarsnow1872nyplThe “fumes of the kerosene mingled with those of the wet straw and damp clothes of the passengers made it hard breathing … I worked my way up and out to the front beside the driver, who by this time looked like a snowman.”

During rough trips like this one, Kelly recalled that passengers became very friendly. “They would talk and laugh with one another like villagers, and occasionally, someone would start singing, in which many would join.”

“Some of the conductors were very jolly, and the men who were generally smokers on the front platform, had a cheerful, if storm-beaten trip.”

Their good cheer came in handy. Cars sometimes jumped track; male passengers would exit and lift it back on the rails (horse cars followed iron rails laid down on the street).

Streetcar1899lexand34thmcnyIt wasn’t easy for the overworked, underfed horses. Of a fallen horse, Kelly wrote, “its lean flanks heaving and sighing was the only response it gave to the beating, howling, and yelling” of passengers who tried to help the animal. Once the horse had been taken off the road, a new team was hitched to theirs.

“The snow seemed to make the passengers unusually sociable,” he wrote. “The men began hobnobbing … while the clear air rang with the girls’ merry laughter…. So it went on till we reached the 49th Street stables.”

[Top photo: 34th and Broadway, 1899, MCNY; second-fourth images: NYPL; fifth photo: snow all cleared at 34th and Lexington Avenue, 1899, MCNY]