Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film

December 9, 2019

In 1955—before the shutdown of the Third Avenue El between Chatham Square and East 149th Street in the Bronx—a filmmaker named Carson Davidson took his camera up to a lonely platform and into one of the mostly empty trains.

With just weeks to go before the train and this main portion of the elevated would be trucked to the scrapyard, Davidson and a group of actors shot a haunting Impressionist short film.

The El may have been destined for the wrecking ball, yet Davidson’s film brings it alive—the iron spine of a city snaking between the tenements of Lower and Upper Manhattan and then over the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.

The voiceless characters feel familiar, but they’re not cliches. A man sleeps, a couple plays cards. A stumblebum gets on near the Bowery and tries to wring one last drop out of a bottle of liquor. A little girl excitedly takes a seat.

Out the train windows we see the geometrical shadows of the railings on platforms. The camera turns to the train itself, a metal machine screeching and lurching high above sidewalks while a harpsichord plays as a soundtrack.

During the ride Davidson captures a street cleaner, faded ads, puddles on paving stones, the Chrysler Building, laundry lines, the Harlem River, and a tugboat belching smoke as a swing bridge aligns itself so the train can keep going.

The Third Avenue El threads the characters’ stories, as does a coin caught in the floor of the train car. Each character tries and fails to grab it.

Finally at night, a young couple boards. Amid glimpses of a Horn and Hardart Automat sign and a movie marquee, the male half of  the couple picks up and pockets the coin.

A director and artist I know had this to add about Davidson’s Oscar-nominated short:

“Although the filmmaker is fascinated with mechanics and shapes, it is always softened by humanity, the sympathetic characters. It’s literally a day in the life of the El which ends, after all those geometrically composed images, romantically with the lovers getting the coin.”

A relic of a downtown “apartment for rent” sign

December 9, 2019

In a city that practically requires renters to fork over thousands of dollars to a real estate broker just to sign an apartment lease, you don’t see too many “apartment for rent” signs nailed to building entrances.

But “to let” or “to rent” signs used to be a lot more common—like this one, which Ephemeral reader Ellen G. shared with me this week.

The sign was for sale on eBay, and the description says it’s from the 1930s.

It’s certainly pre-1960s, as it has the wonderful old two-letter telephone exchange that was replaced by digits in the 1960s. Drydock is the name of a small street in the East Village near Avenue D and 10th Street, a leftover of what was once the Drydock District. (Oddly, Drydock isn’t anywhere near One Spring Street, which is at Bowery.)

This isn’t the only Zacarro real estate relic. I’m not sure if it’s still visible, but a faded ad for P. Zaccaro’s real estate business used to be up on the side of a building on Delancey Street (above).

Who was P. Zaccaro? He was the father-in-law of former New York City congresswoman and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

[Thank you Ellen G. for sharing this sign!]

Delmonico’s tasty menu on Evacuation Day, 1883

November 18, 2019

Do you plan to celebrate Evacuation Day on November 25 later this month?

Probably not. This holiday has been almost entirely erased from the calendar, thanks (in part) to the popularity of a certain other late November celebration.

But if you lived in New York in the late 18th century to the early 1900s, Evacuation Day was something to commemorate. It marks the day in 1783 when the British finally left New York for good after (brutally) occupying the city during the Revolutionary War.

On that morning, the Continental Army, led by George Washington, marched and rode from Upper Manhattan down to Broadway all the way to the Battery, where a Union Jack flag was taken down and an American flag raised. A celebratory dinner was also held at Fraunces Tavern.

The flagpole had been greased by the British, sparking a tradition of climbing up greased flagpoles every November 25. New Yorkers also fervently celebrated the day with a parade to the Battery, an annual event that officially ended in 1916.

Perhaps the high point of celebrating Evacuation Day came in 1883, its centennial.

Among other events, New York’s premier restaurant, Delmonico’s, put together an Evacuation Day Banquet menu, which is now part of the Buttolph menu collection at the New York Public Library.

Delmonico’s was on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street at the time, an enclave of Gilded Age luxury in Manhattan.

One of the first restaurants to popularize French cuisine, Delmonico’s printed their menus in French—and though I can’t translate all of the items on it, it’s clear that this was banquet was quite a feast!

[Top image: LOC]

An elegy for New York’s 1990s Gen X rock clubs

November 4, 2019

What were you doing during the last week of March 1992?

If you were a music-loving Gen-Xer, you might have been going through the latest Village Voice (yes, the print version that you actually paid for), scanning the ads to see which bands were playing any of the dozens of rock clubs scattered around Manhattan.

Almost all of these venues are gone; the bands that played there also almost all defunct, too.

Roseland, which hosted the Sugarcubes (“the coolest band in the world” according to Rolling Stone in 1988) and a bunch of other 1990s alternative bands, bit the dust in 2014.

CBGB had Toshi Reagon and Smashing Orange on their lineup this early spring week. Mission, in the East Village between A and B, drew more of a hardcore crowd, and women got in free with the ad above.

McGovern’s, on Spring Street, “used to be a great old dive,” according to the late great Lost City blog. Today it’s still a music club, Paul’s Casablanca.

Finally, what would 1990s New York be without the Knitting Factory? This ad is from the original location on East Houston Street, before the music and spoken word venue decamped to Tribeca and then relocated to Williamsburg, where it is today.

Look, indie favorite Luna appeared on April 3!

A 1930s artist’s claustrophobic New York Harbor

October 21, 2019

George Grosz made a name for himself drawing and painting caricatures of life in his native Germany during the postwar Weimar era.

But this Expressionist painter who helped lead the Dada movement left Germany in 1932 and relocated to New York City, turning his cynical eye on his adopted home city.

“New York Harbor,” from 1936, is his take on Depression-era Gotham. The colors are cool and the brush strokes thick, giving New York a tough, chaotic feel.

Grosz is like the gulls flying over the harbor. He’s observing this modern city of industry and power, a place that’s so consumed by progress it doesn’t have room for humanity…notice the total absence of people.

A last remnant of the Duane Street shoe district

September 16, 2019

New York is a necropolis of defunct businesses. But every so often an old sign from one of these dead and gone businesses reappears like a ghost, reminding us that at another time in another New York, they were part of the cityscape.

One of these long-gone stores recently revealed itself at 114 Chambers Street in Tribeca. “Craig’s Shoes” it reads, looking strangely British and very old-fashioned.

Tribeca Citizen also noticed the back-in-view sign earlier this summer.

Reader comments explain that Craig’s had been in business since 1949, ending its run in 2006 at a second store site on 132 Chambers Street, which was to be demolished and replaced by the AKA Tribeca Hotel.

Interestingly, Craig’s wasn’t just a one-off shoe store in a neighborhood once known for its light industry and food provisions businesses.

This pocket in Tribeca centered around Duane Street was once the center of the “shoe-jobbing district,” as the area is nicknamed in the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City via Tribeca Citizen.

A New York Times article from 1920 calls it the “Duane Street shoe district,” while other articles go with the “downtown shoe district.”

(At left, 114 Chambers Street in 1940; a shoe icon hangs off the side of the building next door.)

The shoe district appears to have taken off in the late 19th century, and by the 1920s several shoe manufacturers had factories here.

Tribeca wouldn’t be coined until the 1970s, of course, and by that time, the shoe manufacturers and side businesses catering to it were all but gone.

Another curious remnant of the shoe district does still exist, at least it did a decade ago.

It’s this beautiful street clock affixed to 145 Duane Street, former home of the Nathaniel Fisher Company—wholesale shoe sellers described as one of “the oldest shoe firms in America,” according to an 1894 New York Times article.

[Third image: Boot and Shoe Recorder, 1921; fourth image: New York City Department of Records]

When modern buildings come to old-school blocks

September 2, 2019

Brownstones and tenements are New York’s iconic residences, and an unbroken line of either type of housing stretching from block to block is a classic feature of the city.

But sometimes those perfect lines of windows, stoops, fire escapes, and cornices are broken—interrupted by a modern upgrade one could see as fresh and dynamic or as an ugly interloper disturbing the 19th and early 20th century architecture.

Case in point: 277 Mott Street near Prince Street, flanked by tenements in what used to be Little Italy and now is Nolita.

The building was designed by Toshiko Mori, who “conceived a twisting street facade composed of torqued glass and CNC milled stone,” according to City  Realty.

Another reinterpretation of a brownstone or townhouse is this one on an Upper East Side street. I’m not sure what’s going on here or what the inspiration was, but the slightly cylinder-like facade could be a fun feature.

The dazzling beauty of New York autochromes

August 26, 2019

When you’re used to seeing 19th and early 20th century New York City in black and white photos, images of the pre-World War II city in stunning color are a revelation.

And few color photos are quite as much of a revelation as the dreamy, ethereal images known as autochromes.

What’s an autochrome? It’s an early form of color photography patented by French filmmakers August and Louis Lumiere in 1907.

“It involved glass plates, a backlight, soot and (oddly) potato starch—and it revolutionized photography,” stated NPR.com, in an article covering National Geographic’s vast archive of autochromes, which include the images here.

“For about 30 years, it was the most widely used process for capturing color.”

“The pointillistic quality of these photographs—small dots of orange, green and purple—gives them a misty, nostalgic tone,” stated NPR.com.

These five autochromes here give us New York in 1929 and 1930: the Hudson River waterfront, two images of Washington Square Park, a view of the Woolworth Building and the demolished Post Office at City Hall, and the street poetry of two men rifling through the wares of a downtown junk shop.

Historically, they’re fascinating—they reveal the spectrum of colors of buildings, signs, vehicles, and clothes of an earlier city, rather than the contrasts of darkness and light most older photographs offer.

Artistically, autochromes don’t just capture color; they create something magical.

[Autochromes: Clifton R. Adams and Edwin L. Wisherd/National Geographic Creative/Corbis]

Two magical views of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

August 19, 2019

What’s more inspiring than an old color postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge?

An old color postcard of this “eighth wonder of the world,” as it was called on its opening day in May 1883, at night—with the city skyline and the lights of the bridge casting an enchanting glow across the East River.

The earliest postcard of the nighttime bridge is from 1906 (above), and I’m not sure I recognize what appears to be the Brooklyn side in the foreground.

Buildings are short and squat. Pedestrians walk the bridge as they do today, though the trolleys are gone; they were discontinued in 1950.

This second Brooklyn Bridge postcard gives us the bridge three decades later, in 1930.

The bridge itself doesn’t seem to be the focus so much as the magnificent Manhattan skyline of gleaming, towering buildings.

And wow, an airship! I hope it’s not planning to dock at the top of the Empire State Building; that idea didn’t exactly pan out when it was proposed in the 1920s as the building was under construction.

The first New York tenement is on Mott Street

August 12, 2019

The orange building in the middle of the photo below, 65 Mott Street, looks like an ordinary Manhattan tenement.

It lacks a cornice, sure, and a renovation at some point in its history has erased any ornamental features on the facade. But that’s no different to countless other 19th century tenements across the city.

Aside from this, you’d never know that this walkup has one distinction that makes it different from its neighbors.

65 Mott Street “was apparently the very first New York building built specifically to serve as a tenement,” wrote historian Tyler Anbinder in his 2001 book, Five Points—his study of the horrific slum neighborhood this stretch of Mott Street used to be part of.

“Historians have generally cited a building erected on the Lower East Side in 1833 by iron manufacturer James P. Allaire as the city’s first designed tenement…” Anbinder wrote. “But the building at 65 Mott almost certainly predates Allaire’s structure by nearly a decade.”

Anbinder noted that an article in an 1879 trade journal stated that 65 Mott had been occupied for 55 years, which means the tenement was constructed in 1824.

“Its seven stories—a height then unprecedented for a dwelling place—dwarfed the surrounding wooden two-story homes and must have made quite a spectacle when it was first built.”

Tenements, of course, are a New York City invention.

Short for tenant houses, tenements started out as subdivided single-family homes or back houses meant for the city’s growing working-class and poor city residents. (Above, Mott Street in 1911, lined with similar tenements.)

As the city’s population boomed in the first half of the 19th century, unscrupulous builders began constructing substandard multi-family dwellings, knowing they could find plenty of desperate people willing to live in them even thought they lacked basic amenities like natural light and fresh air.

“Tenements built specifically for housing the poor originated at some time between 1820 and 1850….By the end of the Civil War, ‘tenement’ was a term for housing for the urban poor, with well-established connotations for unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” according to NYPL.

From 1868 to 1901, the city enacted a secession of laws mandating that tenements be outfitted with safety features like fire escapes, indoor plumbing, and windows in every room.

Without photos, it’s hard to know when 65 Mott Street was updated and modernized so it looks like any other New York tenement.

A peek inside shows the same kind of tile design in the hallway so common in other late 19th century tenements. Anbinder estimated that the building probably had at least 34 two-room apartments in this 2450-square-foot property.

I wonder if any of the apartments still have bathtubs in the kitchen, or “tuberculosis windows” in the rooms.

[Third photo: George Bain Collection/LOC]