Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The Grand Street bus cruising 1970s New York

June 24, 2019

This is Park Row and Broadway in 1972. John Lindsay was the New York’s mayor; that year, he launched a short-lived quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Transit strikes, teacher strikes, and a sanitation workers’ walkout in the 1960s continued to cripple the 1970s city. By the end of the decade, almost a million people had left Gotham and resettled elsewhere.

But New York kept going, just like this “fishbowl” style bus is doing—cruising its way downtown back to Grand Street. The photo was taken by Joe Testagore and is part of a large collection of vintage transit photos at the wonderful nycsubway.com website.

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

May 6, 2019

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]

The view in the 1820s from a Canal Street home

April 29, 2019

I’ve always been curious about the three-story building just north of Canal Street at 423 Broadway. In the front, it resembles a late 1800s tenement walkup, thanks in part to the flat facade and cornice.

From the side and behind, it has the pitched roof and dormer windows of a Federal home, a popular design style for prosperous New Yorkers in the early 19th century. (Above and at right, in plans presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission)

(Completing the time travel feel is the 1980s-esque graffiti, but that’s a topic for another post.)

A little research helps fill in the blanks about this unusual survivor.

Number 423 was a product of the Federal era, built by a shipmaster named Benjamin Lord in 1822, according to Broadway: A History of New York City in 13 Miles.

In the ensuing years, as the city crept northward, the home was apparently altered and transformed to include a ground-floor commercial space (Below, in 1891).

Yet it stayed under the radar, a quiet underdog witnessing the transformation of the city.

In the 1880s, after Lord’s death, the home earned a mention in a court case related to his will; the house was then valued at $60,000.

And most recently, architectural plans presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2017 threaten to redevelop 423 Broadway and knock down the corner building adjacent to it.

But let’s go back to the 19th century. What was Broadway at Canal Street like in the 1810s, when Lord may have begun his hunt for a place to build his house, and in the 1820s, once it was completed?

It certainly wasn’t the bustling urban corner it is today.

Broadway was in place, but Canal Street was an actual canal—built to help drain polluted Collect Pond near today’s City Hall.

This view of a tavern at Canal and Broadway dates to 1812.

Lord’s house at 423 Broadway “would have offered a view of the small bridge that carried Broadway over the canal that preceded nearby Canal Street,” wrote David W. Dunlap in the New York Times in 2003.

[Second photo: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; Fourth photo: 1891, NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 48.125.1]

A walk down the longest true alley in Manhattan

April 1, 2019

New York was never the kind of city that built alleyways behind its buildings.

As Manhattan grew in the 18th century, real estate was deemed too valuable to waste on alleys. Why not stack buildings behind each other and make more money, right?

That’s likely why new alleys were generally excluded from the Commissioners’ Plan, the 1811 street grid that mapped out the future city plan of the entire island.

Alleys that already existed on city maps were clustered downtown. Some of these still survive, like Exchange Alley, a sliver connecting Trinity Place and Broadway. There’s also Mechanics Alley, running two blocks alongside the Manhattan Bridge approach.

But one new alley was fully laid out and named six years after the street grid plan: Cortlandt Alley.

Today, this shadowy and atmospheric lane runs three blocks from Franklin Street to Canal Street, earning the title of the longest true alley in Manhattan.

“In 1817. John Jay, Peter Jay Munro, and Gordon S. Mumford laid out the alley through their property between White and Canal Streets,” states the 1992 report designating the east side of Tribeca a historic district. The men named it after Jacubus Van Cortlandt, a descendant of the landowning Dutch colonial family.

It’s hard to see it on this 1828 map, but you can just make out “Cortlandt” or “Cortlandt’s” on the slender lane between Broadway and Elm Streets.

The part of Cortlandt Alley south of White Street, “was laid out separately and is 25 feet closer to Broadway,” according to the report. “Both parts of the alley were paved in the early 1820s.”

Cortlandt Alley almost extends four blocks—if you count one-block Benson Place, which lies just to the east on Franklin Street going south to Leonard Street.

A walk down Cortlandt Alley feels like entering a portal into a much earlier New York.

Nothing survives from the post-colonial city, unfortunately. This grimy lane with garbage bags on the sidewalks is lined with turn of the 20th century dry goods warehouses that feature enormous windows, elaborate fire escapes, and impressive shutters.

Bricked over windows and doorways face the alley, too, as well as old-school graffiti. No wonder Cortlandt Alley is so popular for film shoots.

A ping pong club has a door here, as does the Mmuseumm, the smallest museum in the city and located in a converted elevator shaft. Cortlandt Alley at White Street was once home to the 1970s-era Mudd Club.

“No dwelling house shall be erected thereon fronting on Cortlandt Alley,” a real estate article from The New York Times in 1859 read. That decree apparently changed, as luxury condos opened at number six.

A lot has changed in New York since the alley came into existence 202 years ago. But you can still imagine it as it was in the early 1800s: paved with stones, surrounded by new dwellings built on the landfill covering Collect Pond, and used as a shortcut by merchants, workers, servants, sailors, immigrants, and other New Yorkers in the 19th century city.

A Mulberry Street house is a “lonely reminder”

March 18, 2019

I’m not sure when the low-rise buildings at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets were torn down.

But if there’s any upside to the bulldozing of another old New York corner, it’s that we now have an amazing side view of the Federal-style house at 149 Mulberry.

The view is almost a portal into the early 19th century city, when modest but well designed row houses like this one lined New York’s downtown streets and housed well-off families.

Mulberry Street might have had actual Mulberry trees when this two-story (plus an attic) home was built in 1816.

Characteristic of its style, the wood frame home features dormer windows, Flemish bond brick facade, stone lintels, and a gambrel roof.

It was originally constructed up the street at 153 Mulberry by Stephen Van Rensselaer III (below left).

A War of 1812 general and New York politician, Van Rensselaer was the scion of an insanely wealthy family that owned land in upstate New York as well as in Manhattan. After he built the house, it was assessed at $3,750, which seems astoundingly low.

“The house was one of many in the area erected by [sic] Van Rensselaer,” stated Andrew Dolkart in his book, Guide to New York City Landmarks.

After Rensselaer vacated the home and new residents moved in, it was moved to this site between Grand and Hester Streets in 1841.

Here it’s held court for 178 years, watching Mulberry Street’s fortunes rise and fall as the neighborhood went from fashionable to working class to an enclave of poor Italian immigrants by the early 1900s.

The house earned landmark status in 1969, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission noting its stone stoop with original iron handrails and the “beautifully composed” cast iron panels with wreaths with bows and arrows.

This stretch of Nolita is now fashionable again. But the Stephen Van Rensselaer House “is a lonely reminder of the small Federal-style row houses built in Lower Manhattan in the early 19th century,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Gaze at it in all its glory before a new building rises and blocks the side of the house from view for another century and a half.

[Fourth photo: MCNY, 1932: 33.173.168; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia; Sixth photo: NY Department of Records Tax Photo 1940]

What became of 5 tenements on Elizabeth Street

March 4, 2019

What a difference 107 years make on the tenement block of Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston Streets.

In the first photo, taken in 1912 by Lewis Wickes Hine, trash is strewn on the uneven Belgian block pavement. Broken-down carts line the sidewalk; boys huddle in the doorway of a bar bearing a sign for the Kips Bay Brewing Company, founded in 1910.

Kids run around, men stand by storefronts, and laundry hangs from fire escapes laden with pots, pans, and other household items.

It’s a Little Italy street of poverty—but it’s also a hive of human activity, rich with the unpretty details of daily life.

Amazingly, the string of tenements at 260 to 268 Elizabeth Street still stand. They’ve been cleaned up and repainted, and the fire escapes are uniform and clean, almost elegant.

Expensive boutiques and a roasting company occupy the storefronts. The Kips Bay bar is gone, as is the tenement across Houston Street. The block is still and tidy, absent of human energy.

But the little 1820s Federal-style house with the dormer windows on the corner still hangs on. (It was once Colonial Cafe, RIP!)

[Top photo: LOC]

The men who worked the Brooklyn docks in 1912

February 25, 2019

Painter George Bellows captured early 20th century New York’s lovelier moments: a blanket of bluish snow over the Battery, a girl’s enchantment with Gramercy Park, and carefree boys swimming off an East River pier.

But this social realist also cast his eye on the city’s grittier scenes. “Men of the Docks,” completed in 1912, is one of those—showing us a group of men literally pushed to the margins of Brooklyn, where they’ve gathered on a raw morning at an East River pier and face uncertainty.

These day laborers, “await jobs on the docks of Brooklyn on a grey winter morning. The towers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance,” states London’s National Gallery, where the painting hangs.