Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

Labor and pleasure at the Old Slip banana docks

July 30, 2018

Bananas are so ubiquitous in New York, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t fish a few coins from your pocket and buy one at a corner bodega or sidewalk fruit vendor.

But this exotic food was a luxury item after the Civil War, selling for the equivalent of two bucks. Each banana came peeled and sliced, as the shape of the fruit violated Victorian codes of decency, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

With New York one of the busiest port cities in the world, it wasn’t long before fruit companies began shipping mass quantities of bananas on ships arriving at the “banana docks” at the Old Slip piers near Wall Street.

Unloading bananas looked like hard work, according to these turn of the century images. But for small boys in the neighborhood, the banana docks presented opportunities.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in his 1929 autobiography.

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

[Top photo: MCNY, 1906, X2011.34.4388; second photo: 1904 LOC]

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.

Dreams and illusions on 1930s Chambers Street

July 23, 2018

It’s an ordinary Depression-era day in “View in Chambers Street,” painted by O. Louis Guglielmi in 1936. On this shadowy, marginalized downtown street, we see rundown tenements, sidewalks almost empty of people, and a disorienting perspective.

Faces show little detail, but body language tells us more. A female figure appears to confront another woman sitting on a stoop, and a couple round the corner beside a faded ad, looking downward in different directions.

Amid the despair, though, there’s a strength of the human spirit. Even in rough times, when banks can’t help make dreams come true (see the faded Bowery Savings Bank ad) and even the circus can’t offer any magic (“The Greatest Show on Earth” ad is partially torn), people persist.

The couple look in different directions, but their arms are locked as a team. The rickety baby carriage contains their future.

Guglielmi, who grew up poor in Italian Harlem, painted in the social surrealist style—using abstract, dreamlike images to convey something about society.

His Chambers Street blends a down and out urbanscape with the working poor who live there, who remain stoic in the face of uncertainty.

This Guglielmi painting of a child playing hopscotch beside a stoop on South Street has a similar foreboding quality.

Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

July 2, 2018

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]

Summer among the tenement houses in 1879

June 18, 2018

“Among the tenement-houses during the heated term—just before daybreak” reads the caption to this 1879 illustration of New York’s poverty-stricken slums in the summertime.

Under a gaslight, adults and kids try to catch a breeze and sleep on the front steps of a rundown grocery, as well as on the roof and beside open windows.

In July and August, any New Yorker who could left the city for cooler weather in the country. These residents remained behind to deal with the oppressive heat made worse by the airless rooms of tenement flats.

They don’t even have fire escapes to sleep on, which 20th century city residents used as beds for hot summer nights.

The graceful beauty of an original subway kiosk

June 11, 2018

There is sits beside City Hall Park, an original New York City subway entrance—one of several entrances and exits for the new IRT subway, which made its debut in 1904.

Modeled after subway kiosks in Budapest, these graceful structures (domed roof kiosks were entrances; those with peaked roofs were exits, see below at East 23rd Street) were built during the height of the City Beautiful movement that swept major urban areas at the turn of the 20th century.

The idea was that public buildings—schools, courts, and subway kiosks as well—should inspire and uplift city residents.

I’m not sure if any of the originals exist today. But some subways have replicas, like the one at Astor Place, with its colorful beavers on the platform.

[Photo: NYPL, 1903; postcard, MCNY 1905 X2011.34.2882]

What the bronze reliefs on 195 Broadway mean

June 11, 2018

Inspired by ancient Greece, the 27-story office tower at 195 Broadway features a marble lobby and interior classical columns.

The building, completed in 1922, also paid tribute to what qualified as modern communication at the time. This was the new headquarters for AT&T, after all, and company heads topped the tower on the Fulton Street side with a sculpture called “Genius of Telegraphy,” a 24-foot winged male figure cast in bronze holding bolts of electricity in its hand.

“Gold Boy,” as that statue was nicknamed, is no longer there. But four bronze reliefs on the facade of 195 Broadway still exist. Instead of paying tribute to modern communications, they hark back to ancient times.

The four reliefs are collectively titled “The Four Elements,” an early work by sculptor Paul Manship, who designed the Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Plaza.

Manship honored the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. According to Landmarks Preservation Committee report from 2006 (the year 195 Broadway was deemed a landmark site), the panels there today are copies of the originals.

They’re somewhat racy for the 1920s, with topless female figures. And it’s a little strange to see them outside the latest branch of trendy retailer Anthropologie, which now occupies the ground floor.

But the Art Deco touches—and the elements they celebrate—make these reliefs an inspiring break along the canyons of Lower Broadway.

[Top photo: Blue Rock Construction]

The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

May 28, 2018

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]

Floating chapels for 19th century sailor souls

May 14, 2018

New York City would never have become the financial powerhouse it is without its harbor—or the thousands of sailors who came and went on cargo ships from all over the globe.

Recognizing the sheer number of seamen in New York at any one time and concerned about their welfare, city residents in the early 19th century launched organizations that tended to their health—physical and moral, of course.

Life wasn’t cushy for a sailor. Wages weren’t great, conditions on ships were rough, and on shore, thieves waited to take advantage of them via knockout drops and worse. (At right, sailors on Pike Street in 1869)

The Seamen’s Friend Society was established in 1828 and built homes for sailors a cut above waterfront boardinghouses. And Sailors Snug Harbor opened on Staten Island five years later as a retirement complex for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out” seamen.

Remnants of these organizations still exist in the city. But one has been almost forgotten: the Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopalians to offer floating chapels to sailors coming in and out of New York Harbor.

The first floating church was moored off Pike Street. Appropriately called the Floating Church of Our Savior, this Gothic edifice burned down in 1866 and was replaced by a second chapel, where sailors worshiped until 1910.

Another chapel at sea, the Church of the Holy Comforter, was docked off Dey Street in the Hudson River.

As these illustrations show, these chapels of the sea really did look like churches; the Floating Church of Our Savior also had its own organ and a spire 70 feet tall.

The idea was that a sailor wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping at a church on land in a strange city. “In a floating church, he knows he has a home,” stated Dwight’s American Magazine in 1845.

“On Sunday mornings, from 150 to 200 seamen…are regularly assembled, and with them are often mingled persons of both sexes, of the most respectable classes, from the city’s congregations, pleased with the opportunity of worshiping with the sons of the ocean.”

In 1910, the Floating Church of Our Savior was towed from Pike Street to dry land on Staten Island, where in 1914 it became All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Richmond Terrace.

After a fire in 1958, the former floating chapel could not be rebuilt. Amazingly, the circa-1869 organ survived—but its whereabouts are unknown, according to nycago.org.

[Top photo: Seamen’s Church Institute; second image: NYPL Digital Gallery; third image: MCNY 58.233.1; fourth image: Seamen’s Church Institute; fifth image: Dwight’s American Magazine; sixth image: LOC/Bain Collection]