Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

All the ways to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903

September 21, 2020

Here we are at Brooklyn Terminal in 1903, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge known as the “East River Bridge” during its long construction.

To cross the bridge, you had options. Taking a trolley car was one method; a horse-drawn cart was another. And of course, walking was a possibility. By 1903, it was free to be a pedestrian on the bridge, but when the span opened in 1883, the fee to walk was one cent!

What, no bike lane yet?

[MCNY F2011.33.1886]

Duane Street like you’ve never seen it before

September 14, 2020

If you’re used to thinking of Duane Street as an affluent downtown street stretching from Foley Square to Tribeca, then this 1877 depiction of a dingy, down and out Duane Street will come as a surprise.

The painter is Louis Comfort Tiffany. Before he made his name by creating stained glass pieces, he studied painting.

The title is “Old New York,” and the painting is part of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. I wish I knew what brought Tiffany to Duane Street and why he captured this image of rundown storefronts and two men—one busying himself with work and the other standing, perhaps waiting for business.

The sordid past of the East Village’s Extra Place

September 14, 2020

The downtown alleys of old New York tended to be unsavory. So it’s not exactly a surprise that the East Village alley called Extra Place experienced its share of the social ills of the 19th century city.

Gangs, domestic violence, fires, and disease all touched this obscure dead end off First Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue, a look through various newspaper archives shows.

How Extra Place got its name is a bit of a mystery. But Forgotten New York has it that the street dates back to 1800, when a landowner named Philip Minthorne divvied up his 110-acre farm equally among his children. A small “extra” piece of land was left over.

Extra Place may have been a respectable, more middle class place to live at first, just like the surrounding neighborhood. New York newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s contain ads from Extra Place addresses looking for chambermaids and other household workers.

 By the 1880s, Extra Place was making headlines. The story of two Extra Place residents who stabbed and billy clubbed each other at 2 a.m. one night appeared in the major papers the next day. One was a truckman and the other a watchman residing at a lodging house at 6 Extra Place; they were arrested and brought to Essex Market Police Court.

Reports of fights and drunkenness on Extra Place became more common. Fires too. One 1887 blaze that broke out in a bar fixtures factory running from the Bowery to Extra Place displaced many residents and killed two horses in a stable, reported the New York Times.

In 1888, domestic violence was reported at 4 Extra Place. In one case, two brothers stabbed each other, and one assaulted the other’s wife with a hammer. (They too were brought to Essex Market, per the Evening World.

Then there was cholera. In 1892, a woman came down with the deadly disease, and some residents were quarantined to prevent a wider outbreak. (Not an uncommon sequence of events in New York at the time.)

Reporters wrote stories about the “queer” alley and its tenements. “Peddlers rarely venture into the street,” one stated. “Crooked lampposts and ugly fire escapes are in sight, but the east side eye has been educated up to that sort of thing and the straight and dignified lamppost is regarded with as much suspicion as the bare walls of a tenement.”

Extra Place receded from headlines in the 20th century. (See the alley in the 1930s, photo at left and below.) But a renaissance for this alley located in a down and out part of Manhattan was not yet in the cards.

“Extra Place is a narrow little dead-end street, dark even by day and marked off by rusty iron warehouse doors and shuttered windows, with week-old newspapers blowing along the gutters,” wrote Brendan Gill in The New Yorker in 1952 (via the AIA Guide).

In the 1970s, Extra Place made an appearance on the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia LP cover. In gritty, broke New York City, Extra Place was still under the radar. I’m not sure it even had a street sign.

Fast forward to the 2000s, when the developers behind a new luxury apartment building wanted to turn Extra Place into a pedestrian walkway lined with boutiques and restaurants.

Judging by how quiet it was on Extra Place a few weeks ago, I don’t think the plan worked. You can luxurify this alley with trendy brands and pave over the Belgian blocks with concrete, but Extra Place’s 19th century feel doesn’t disappear so easily.

[Map: NYPL; seventh photo: NYPL]

Portraits of the street sellers of 1840 New York

July 27, 2020

Nicolino Calyo had a peripatetic journey to New York City. Born in Naples in 1799, this classically trained painter fled political rebellions there and in Spain before landing in Baltimore and then in New York City.

In Gotham, his dramatic scenes of the Great Fire of 1835 and narrative landscapes of the Manhattan waterfront made his name as an exiled European artist.

But Calyo also earned notoriety for a very different kind of painting: street portraits. In 1840, he published more than 100 watercolors he titled “Cries of New York” that depicted the tradesmen, vendors, laborers, and peddlers who plied Manhattan’s grimy streets at the time by cart, wagon, and foot.

Calyo’s New York was the pre-Civil War city of oyster stands, hot corn sellers, “market women,” newsboys and match boys, charcoal-heated homes, ice sold out of carts, wagon delivery of eggs and butter, and young attractive women selling strawberries from baskets.

There’s no text beneath their portraits, which exude a cheeky kind of confidence. We’re left to imagine what their lives were like at a time when slavery had recently been fully outlawed (in 1827, to be exact) and a wave of immigrants from Germany and Ireland were crowding into tenant houses—soon to be known as tenements—in Downtown neighborhoods.

The people in his watercolors are all New Yorkers, but this genre depicting the “cries” of people on city streets originated in Europe in the early 16th century, explains Steven H. Jaffe in a rich and astute article on Calyo’s portraits, published in the Museum of the City of New York’s City Courant in 2017.

MCNY has some of Calyo’s portraits in its collection, as does the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum. “Calyo was never a particularly sophisticated painter; his landscapes, faces, and human figures often approach the formulaic quality of folk art or caricature,” wrote Jaffe.

“But his keen eye, the charm and color of his style, and his sensitivity to the urban scene have left us with images that evoke New York’s political culture during the Jacksonian era—the so-called ‘Age of the Common Man’—when universal suffrage for white men and an expanding urban economy bred a popular faith in the abilities and dignity of ordinary working- and middle-class city dwellers.”

[Top image: Flickr; second image: Brooklyn Museum; third image: MCNY 8742; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY 55.6.12; sixth image: MCNY 55.6.2; seventh and eighth images: Yale Museum of Art]

Battery Park City used to have a sandy beach

July 13, 2020

In 1976, the 92 acres of landfill that would one day become Battery Park City was in place and ready.

Unfortunately New York City—which hoped this new development would help revitalize the lower West Side of Manhattan—was too broke to get construction started until 1980, according to bpcparks.org.

So until the early 1980s, an actual sandy beach took shape in the shadow of the nearby World Trade Center, an isolated stretch popular with local sunbathers and other beach lovers.

“It was called ‘the beach’ because of the sand dunes on the empty landfill,” Mayor Edward Koch said in 1992, via a 2012 book, Battery Park City: Politics and Planning on the New York Waterfront.

The New York Times ran a wonderful series of photos last year in a story about the beach, which disappeared as construction commenced. But the beach must have been quite lovely while it lasted!

[Top Photo: Marilyn K. Yee/The New York Times; second image: Battery Park City skyline, MCNY, 1990; 2013.3.2.991]

George Bellows understood New York in summer

July 13, 2020

George Bellows was not a New York native. But this early 20th century painter—who moved to Gotham in 1904 and established himself a leader of the Ashcan school of social realism and worked from his East 19th Street studio—made a career out of depicting both bold and tender scenes of life in New York City.

[Cliff Dwellers, 1913]

Bellows painted the city in every season, particularly winter. Yet it’s his images of New Yorkers in warm weather that seem to truly capture the rhythms and rituals of a New York summer.

[Beach at Coney Island, 1908]

The sweltering heat locked in a tenement courtyard, the nighttime parks where a couple stroll by lamplight under a dark canopy of leaves, the Coney Island beaches, where moral codes could be broken under and outside a tent in the sand—these playful portrayals of the summertime city still speak to the contemporary New Yorker.

[Summer Night, Riverside Drive; 1909]

Even Bellows’ depictions of boys crowded on a waterside dock conveys the thrill—and necessity, in a roasting city still without municipal pools—of goofing around and cooling off with a swim in a river, an activity that was outlawed in the early 1900s.

[Forty-two Kids; 1907]

Not only did Bellows capture the feel of the heated summer city, but he empathized with those he painted.

That includes the subjects in these four paintings: the sweat-soaked tenement dwellers, the lovers on the beach, the couple in the park catching time while walking the dog, and the cub pack of boys smoking, peeing, hanging out, and getting ready to test their boundaries and dive into the water.

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

Let the Brooklyn Bridge show you the way

June 8, 2020

The Brooklyn Bridge (or the East River Bridge, as this 1920 postcard charmingly calls it) is many things.

It’s a display of engineering might, a graceful web of wire over water, a symbol of New York’s unity, the embodiment of promise and possibility. Let it be a source of inspiration during this time when our city has been tested.

[MCNY F2011.33.1882]

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover?

April 27, 2020

Manhattan still has several manhole covers that mark the Croton Aqueduct, the 1842 engineering masterpiece that fed fresh water to the 1840s metropolis from a series of gravity-powered pipes and city receiving reservoirs.

Dated 1862, this one hiding in plain sight on the grimy corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street is thought to be the oldest in the city. It’s might also be the most southerly one, since the Croton manhole cover once on Jersey Street in Noho has disappeared.

But unless it was removed recently (and that’s certainly possible), an almost identical cover, also dated 1862, lies underfoot in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, at First Avenue and 112th Streets.

In the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, it’s a fitting time to take a moment and celebrate what the Croton Aqueduct did for New York City: it brought clean drinking water to an unsanitary city where fresh water was hard to find.

Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted.