Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Gazing at the Twin Towers from the Staten Island Ferry in the 1970s

September 6, 2021

It’s easy to understand why these ferry riders were so captivated by the Twin Towers, which were almost completely built at the edge of Lower Manhattan when they took this trip crossing New York Harbor. (No antenna yet on the roof of the North Tower; that would come in 1978.)

This photo, by Morris Huberland and part of the Morris Huberland Collection in the NYPL Digital Collection, must have been taken in the early 1970s.

It’s quiet and contemplative, reflecting the tone many New Yorkers will take on this week as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

A painter’s evocative look at an empty street beside the Manhattan Bridge

August 16, 2021

Anthony Springer was a lawyer-turned-artist who painted the energy and vitality of various downtown New York City neighborhoods until his death in 1995.

His work has been featured on this site before—rich, colorful images of quiet streets and empty stretches of Greenwich Village before the 1990s revitalization breathed new life into fading storefronts and forgotten corners…and in many cases changed the fabric of the neighborhood.

Here’s a Springer painting that offers a look at a slender street alongside the Manhattan Bridge. It calls up a time when you could find deserted streets like this downtown—populated by pigeons, a lone parked car (or stolen one ditched?), an industrial building not turned into lofts, a glorious bridge empty of the pedestrians and bikers seen today.

I’m not sure if we’re on the Manhattan or Brooklyn side, but it’s an evocative reminder of a different city.

[Invaluable]

The 200-year history of a Bleecker Street house

August 16, 2021

Every house in New York City has a story. And the story of the Federal-style, Flemish bond brick residence at 58 Bleecker Street begins in the early 19th century with a Roosevelt.

58 Bleecker Street in 2021

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt III—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great-grandfather—had the house at Bleecker and Crosby Streets built for himself and his family in 1823. It was once part of a row; a two-story carriage house was constructed a few years later that still survives next door on Crosby Street.

James Roosevelt was a patrician citizen of the growing metropolis. Born in 1760, he was the fifth generation of Roosevelts in New York City since his ancestor, Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt, immigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, according to Shannon Butler’s Roosevelt Homes of the Hudson Valley.

Roosevelt followed his father into the sugar refining and banking businesses, and he also had a farm in Harlem, wrote Butler. He dabbled a bit in politics, serving in the New York State Assembly and as an alderman on the City Council. But business and a little philanthropy were his main occupations.

When the neighborhood near his South Street primary residence became undesirable, Roosevelt relocated to newly fashionable Bleecker Street—where other prominent New Yorkers were building houses as well.

During his two decades or so living in the house, Roosevelt watched his neighborhood become one of the most elite in the 1830s and 1840s city. Still, his life was marked by tragedy. Roosevelt’s first two wives died, and he received visitors at the house in 1827 after his 19-year-old son Walker lost his life, according the Evening Post.

Jacobus “James” Roosevelt, the elite New Yorker who built the house

Roosevelt died in 1847. His widow, Harriet Howland Roosevelt, stayed in the home for several years. By 1856, however, she likely passed away or moved on; an ad in the New York Times noted that an estate sale was being held in the house and all furniture was to be sold, including the “elegant rosewood parlor furniture, covered with damask,” “mahogany bedroom furniture,” and a large carriage.

In 1857, the house entered a wildly different phase. Elizabeth Blackwell—the first female physician not just in New York City but the entire country—rented the house and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children there on May 12.

Blackwell, along with her doctor sister, outfitted Roosevelt’s old home with a maternity center and surgical suite. The doors opened the doors to the increasing number of poor families in the once-posh neighborhood. The infirmary, which treated women at no cost, also trained female doctors.

“Forty-six indoor patients, each remaining on an average of three weeks in the house, have been treated, comprising 30 cases of general disease, 13 midwifery cases, and 3 surgical operations,” wrote the New York Times in December 1857, summing up the first six months of the infirmary.

The Roosevelt house, 1939-1941

By the 1860s, however, Roosevelt’s house was serving an entirely different function. It was home to a dressmaker, who placed an ad in the New York Daily Herald in 1863 to inform “the ladies of New York and environs that she will have her grand opening day” on March 26 and “she respectfully invites them to give her a visit.”

Through much of the 19th century, this eastern end of Bleecker Street held steady as a retail area. A furniture store occupied the ground floor in the 1870s, and a feather shop took the space in 1891, according to the LPC report.

The main house in 1975, with the carriage house behind it

Manufacturing arrived in the 20th century; the upper floors were converted to manufacturing lofts. The ground floor became a restaurant. “The house continued in that usage into the mid-20th century,” the LPC report states.

By the 1990s, things changed once again for Roosevelt’s former residence. Bleecker Street between the East Village and the soon to be named Nolita was once again a destination neighborhood. By the mid-1990s, Bleecker Street Bar held court on the ground floor. Today, the bar is gone.

58 Bleecker Street in 2011

Alterations over the last 200 years include changes to the roofline. The Dutch-style stepped gables still extant in 2011 (see above) are gone, and today it’s perfectly pitched with both chimneys rising high. Perhaps this third floor facade was rebuilt, and the coat of red paint removed.

Scaffolding currently outside the Bleecker Street side tells us that Roosevelt’s house is getting ready for its next incarnation in an ever-changing New York City.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York Times 1856; fifth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon 2013.3.1.68; seventh image: Wikipedia]

The castles and villages of 1914 Lower Manhattan

August 9, 2021

For a painting with such a perfunctory name, “Municipal and Woolworth Buildings, Lower Manhattan,” by Lionel S. Reiss, gives us a stunning look at a two-tiered city.

In the distance is the New York of concrete canyons and tall buildings reaching toward the heavens, ethereal and dreamlike. In the foreground are the the tenements of the people, in hearty earth tones that reflect the life and activity happening inside them.

Born in 1894 in Jaroslaw Poland, Reiss grew up on the Lower East Side; he would have had a front-row seat to the changing landscape around City Hall and the Financial District in the early 1900s. After working as a commercial artist in the 1920s, he traveled through Europe and North Africa, returning to New York City before World War II.

“One of the central themes of Reiss’ art was that of every day street life, replete with its class distinctions and social strata,” stated one source, a Jewish research archive that includes his work. In this 1914 painting, Reiss seems to be depicting class distinction by painting two skyscrapers as Medieval castles and the tenements as the village surrounding them.

Departing the ferry across the monolith of Lower Manhattan

August 2, 2021

Born in Michigan in 1865, William Samuel Horton was a prolific Impressionist painter of many landscapes and water scenes, especially in Europe and his adopted country of France, where he died in 1936.

But Horton did spend some time in New York City. He studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design, left for Europe, and returned to New York for an unknown period of time in 1924, according to Cincinnati Art Galleries, Inc.

It was during his return in the mid-1920s when he likely painted “Departing the Ferry, New York,” depicting the urban landscape of Lower Manhattan and the hordes of mostly men in straw hats with obscured faces as they empty out of a commuter from the gangplank.

By the 1920s, New York had built several steel bridges crossing the East River. But ferries were still plying the waters, especially to Staten Island and New Jersey. These massive vessels delivered people to and from an office tower city that looks like a monolith. It’s tough to know where we are along New York’s waterways…perhaps Horton didn’t think the exact location mattered.

What a hot night looked like on an East Side tenement block in 1899

July 29, 2021

First of all, almost everyone is outside—on the street, the sidewalk, fire escapes. If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment without an air conditioner, you know how stifling those rooms can get, and they force you to seek relief outdoors.

The other thing is, people don’t look as miserable as you’d expect for a street scene in the summer heat. Kids are playing; groups of adults are talking. Lone men and women sit on the sidewalk or stoops and watch. Tempers don’t seem to be flaring; no one appears to be looking for a fight.

The moon is bright. What looks like an arc light in the background illuminates the street. People gather at tables by torchlight. As the caption says, it’s one of hundreds of similar scenes enacted at the same time all over the city.

[NYPL]

A bizarre August tradition along old New York City’s waterfronts

July 29, 2021

The lazy dog days of summer along the waterfronts of late 19th century New York could could also be dangerous, thanks in part to a strange old tradition called “launching day.”

Boys at Rutgers Slip in 1908

On either August 1 or the first Friday in August (sources differ on exactly when it was held and how long it lasted), boys (and some men) along the city’s rivers would pick up another boy or man and launch them into the water.

“Yesterday was what the boys along the water front call ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New York World on August 3, 1897. “They throw each other into the river, clothes and all, saying, ‘Now swim and give yourself a bath.'”

“Splinter Beach” by George Bellows, 1916

The origins of launching day aren’t clear, but one Brooklyn newspaper stated in 1902 that it “has been a summer event ever since Robert Fulton launched the first steamboat into the Hudson in 1807.”

Launching Day was apparently held in Brooklyn as well. “Tomorrow will also be a fine day for the little boys along the river front who will observe ‘Launching Day,'” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 31, 1897, a Saturday. “This juvenile holiday will, in all probability, last for three days, as some little boys do not like to be thrown overboard in their Sunday togs.”

Boys on a Brooklyn pier

It all sounds pretty innocent. On hot summer days boys all over the city without access to swimming pools or beaches cooled off by wading into the East and Hudson Rivers. Near South Street they dove off the docks at Market and Dover Streets; in Yorkville and East Harlem they swam into the water near treacherous Hell Gate.

The problem with Launching Day, though, was that many people didn’t know how to swim in the 19th century city. Inevitably, newspapers carried tragic stories the next day about people who ended up in the water and never resurfaced.

1911 New York Evening World headline

“August 1 has been known about the waterfront for many years as ‘Launching Day,'” wrote the New-York Herald on August 2, 1900. “Anybody who ventures on a pier is in danger of being thrown into the water….John Kriete, 21 years old, an iceman of 312 East 84th Street, pushed a workman, George Krause, of the same address, overboard at East 100th Street yesterday and fell in afterward himself. Kriete was drowned.”

“In Brooklyn the drowned body of Thomas McGullen, the 10-year-old son of John McGullen of No. 70 Hicks Street, was taken from the water at Henry Street,” wrote the New-York Tribune on August 2, 1903. “He was pushed off the pier by his playmates, who were celebrating ‘launching.’ They thought he could swim.”

The action along an East River dock

Exactly when launching day died out I’m not sure. But by the 1930s, newspapers interviewed people who recalled the tradition.

In the Daily News in 1934, a police reporter wrote: “I’ve known how to swim for 30 years because I was one of the West Side kids who used the Hudson River. We don’t have it now but then we had an annual ‘Launching Day’….Everybody near the water got thrown in, clothes and all. You had to swim or else.”

[Top photo: George Bain Collection/LOC; second image: George Bellows; Third photo: New-York Historical Society; Fourth image: New York Evening World; Fifth image: NYPL]

A painter in Astoria captures what he saw across the East River

July 26, 2021

When painters depict the East River, it’s usually from the Manhattan side: a steel bridge, choppy waters, and a Brooklyn or Queens waterfront either thick with factories or quaint and almost rural.

But when Richard Hayley Lever decided to paint the river in 1936, he did it from Astoria. What he captured in “Queensboro Bridge and New York From Astoria” (above) is a scene that on one hand comes across as quiet and serene—is that a horse and carriage in the foreground?—but with the business and industry of Manhattan looming behind.

This Impressionist artist gives us a view at about 60th Street; the bridge crosses at 59th, of course, and that gas tank sat at the foot of 61st Street through much of the 20th century.

Is the horse and carriage actually on Roosevelt Island or even still in Queens? Often these details can be found on museum and art or auction websites. Lever came to New York City from Australia in 1911 and taught at the Art Students League from 1919-1931, establishing a studio in the 1930s and teaching at other schools. But aside from this, I couldn’t find many details about his work.

He did paint the Queensboro Bridge and East River again though, as well as the High Bridge over the Harlem River and West 66th Street, among other New York locations. The title and date of the second image of the two ships is unknown right now. “Ship Under Brooklyn Bridge” (third image) is from 1958, the year he died after a life of artistic recognition and then financial difficulties, per this biography from Questroyal.

The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street

July 25, 2021

When Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan trains.”

But some of Brace’s ideas would seem like common sense to contemporary New Yorkers. Later in the Gilded Age, Brace decided to build lodging houses and “industrial schools” in New York’s impoverished neighborhoods, places where children could learn a trade and prepare for adult life.

In an era when options for street kids often meant the almshouse or an orphan asylum, homes and schools like these could be real lifelines.

Sullivan Street Industrial School in 1893

One of these industrial schools still stands on Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets. Opened in 1892, it’s a red brick beauty with Gothic and Flemish touches (that stepped gable roof!) on a South Village block where Italian immigrants dominated in the late 19th century.

Brace ministered to street kids, but he also had famous friends. One was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park as well as the creative genius behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just an elevated train stop away on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Sullivan Street, 1893, on the same block as the school

“Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then,” wrote Brian J. Pape in WestView News.

Vaux designed the Sullivan Street school, as well as the Society’s Lodging House on Avenue B and Eighth Street, the Elizabeth Home for Girls on East 12th Street, and the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, all of which are still part of the cityscape and share the same architectural flourishes.

Sullivan Street, 1895

To fund the school, two benefactors stepped forward with the $90,000 needed: Mrs. Joseph M. White and Miss M.W. Bruce, according to an 1892 New York Times article. Supporting the Society was popular with wealthy Gilded Age families, and both women had long been involved in the Society’s efforts.

Opening day in December was captured in print. “The children, to the number of 420, girls and boys, between the ages of five and thirteen, were marshaled into the audience room under the charge of Mrs. C. Forman, principal of the school, and her nine assistant teachers,” wrote the New York Times. “They were dressed in their new suits of clothing, given to them on Monday last by Miss Bruce.”

The school and a next-door playground in 1939-1941

For decades, the Sullivan Street Industrial School served a community that became one of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhoods. Classes in woodworking, metalworking, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills were offered.

The Society didn’t beat around the bush about the rough and tumble neighborhood, however. “This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities in the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible,” the Society wrote in a 1892 report.

The school was more than just a place of learning. An 1899 report by Principal Forman explains that funds were raised from “generous friends” to distribute food and fuel, as well as hot dinners. An organization called the Odds and Ends Society “furnished many warm and comfortable garments” for the children, and mothers who were considered “deserving poor” with husbands out of work were given money to help with rent.

Today, it looks like this former lifeline is a rental building on a much more affluent Sullivan Street. At least one apartment offers up-close views of that stepped gable roofline.

[Second image: History of Child Saving in the United States; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]