Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The man in one of New York’s oldest photos

March 9, 2020

He’s young, handsome, and decked out in a formal suit coat with what looks like a tie. This daguerrotype portrait of him dates back to 1840, just as daguerrotype photography was introduced to America.

Who is he? His identity may be lost to the ages.

But we do know who took the photo: Samuel F.B. Morse (below, years later as an older man), who would be credited with inventing the telegraph in 1844.

Before sending the first telegraph message, Morse was a painter and professor of art at the new University of the City of New York—later to be renamed New York University.

While studying in Europe, he met Louis Daguerre and learned his process for capturing images.

After returning to the US in 1839, Morse set up a studio on the roof of the Old University Building on Washington Square with John William Draper, a chemistry professor also interested in Daguerre’s process. (Draper created this portrait of his sister in the studio in 1840.)

In this studio, Morse “received many students who paid him to teach them the new daguerreotype process,” states the Library of Congress. (Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer who would launch his first studio on Broadway in 1844, was one.)

Perhaps the young man in the image was an earnest daguerrotype student. Maybe he’s the scion of an old money family and wanted a selfie. Or he could be an NYU kid recruited as a model because of his good looks.

Whoever he is, he’s the subject of one of the earliest photographic images ever taken in New York City.

“This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has it in its collection.

“The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.”

[Top and middle images: Metmuseum.org]

Who is taking the steam ferry to Brooklyn in 1836

February 10, 2020

This was how you crossed the East River in the 1830s: by a steam-powered ferry sporting an American flag and a belching smokestack. Perhaps you’d be accompanied by some horses, one attached to a covered wagon.

That’s what this hand-colored 1836 engraving from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, by G.K. Richardson after William Henry Bartlett, tells us. It’s simply titled, “The Ferry at Brooklyn, New York.”

You might take this river crossing all in stride and not demonstrate any excitement about it, as the ladies talking in a circle on the left side of the ferry seem to be doing. Or the ferry ride might thrill you or make you ponder things, as you rest against the railing like the figures on the right.

Go to the Smithsonian site via the link above and use the zoom button to really see the ferry riders.

A mystery ghost building on Lafayette Street

February 3, 2020

Every time I walk up Lafayette Street, it catches my eye: the stark imprint of a small house or building between Spring and Prince Street at what would be number 246. (Seen here in a 2013 photo.)

Short but with a sharply outlined chimney and slightly steeped roofline, It’s like a phantom from another New York, perhaps the mid-19th century. Who lived or worked here?

Lafayette Street has a long history. The stretch south of Prince was originally part of Elm Street, which began at Chambers Street and became a tenement district as the 19th century continued. (A sliver of Elm Street still exists near the Municipal Building.)

In the early 1900s, Elm Street was extended and connected to the former Lafayette Place—an elite enclave built by John Jacob Astor in the 1830s from Astor Place to Great Jones Street. The wide new thoroughfare was renamed Lafayette Street and became much more commercial.

The street name changes complicate unsolving the mystery. But according to a 2010 report by the Soho-Cast Iron District Extension prepared by the NYC Landmarks Commission, what was once number 246 was “a brick nineteenth century” demolished in 2008 to become a “dining pavilion” for a hotel on the other side on Crosby Street.

This 1940 tax photo (and a closeup) shows what the little building looked like. Perhaps it began as a house like so many other commercial buildings did in the mid-19th century, then changed as the neighborhood went out of fashion and became rougher around the edges.

[Tax photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services)

The green lanterns of a Chinatown police station

January 27, 2020

New York City has 77 police precincts, which means 77 precinct houses. One of the oldest is the Fifth Precinct station house at 19 Elizabeth Street, just below Canal Street—so understated it practically blends right into the tenements beside it.

These days, things are relatively sedate in the neighborhood, which encompasses Chinatown, what’s left of Little Italy, and a bit of Soho as well (since the late 1990s more or less collectively known as Nolita).

But imagine Elizabeth and Canal Streets in 1881, when the precinct house opened. This was the Sixth Ward, a rough and tumble immigrant enclave on the border of Five Points, Manhattan’s notorious 19th century slum district.

The neighborhood may have changed. But one thing remains: the green lanterns flanking the front door. (Above, in 2020, and below, a different set of lanterns in 1900)

It’s one feature every precinct house has in common. The tradition of the green lanterns harkens back to the city of the 17th century, before a professional police department was formed in 1845.

What constituted a police force in the mid-1600s was a group of watchmen formed a “rattle watch” that would patrol the streets at night, rattling keys and carrying a green lantern on a pole, wrote Bruce Chadwick in Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD.

(Some sources say the rattle watch carried actual wood rattles, but whatever they carried, the point was to scare off troublemakers by making noise.)

“When they returned to their watch house, they put the lantern outside it; this is why all old precinct houses in the city today have green lanterns beside their front entrances.”

[Third photo: NYPL]

A Lower East Side artist who painted the city

January 6, 2020

You might not know of Samuel Halpert, who was born in Bialystok, Russia (now Poland) and moved with his family to live among other Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1890 when he was five years old.

[“The Flatiron Building,” 1919]

But you’ll recognize the New York City he painted in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of his subjects—new skyscrapers, steel bridges—foretold that the 20th century would be big and bold.

Other subjects, such as the East River waterfront, downtown neighborhoods, and the poetic view from tenement rooftops, were more intimate glimpses of the moods of the modern city.

[“Sheridan Square, New York,” 1920]

Halpert’s art education consisted of classes at neighborhood settlement houses, then the National Academy of Design as well as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He exhibited at the famous 1913 Armory Show, and also painted figures, interior scenes, and murals (for the money, according to a biography from the Spellman Gallery).

[“Downtown,” 1922]

But perhaps the New York he came of age in was his main inspiration and most popular subject matter—which he took on in a style that blended Post-Impressionism and Fauvism (in the style of “wild beasts,” according to one source).

[“City View,” date unknown]

Halpert’s talent was immense, and he attracted attention. But his life was brief. He moved between New York and Paris in the teens, came back to New York for a spell, then took a teaching job at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit in 1926.

[“A View of the Brooklyn Bridge,” date unknown]

Halpert died in 1930. While his name is mostly forgotten, his colorful, sometimes dynamic and sometimes somber paintings remain…and deserve a wider audience.

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

A downtown neon candy store sign is falling apart

December 30, 2019

What in the world is going on with this Loft’s Candies sign? Faded and falling apart, it’s been hanging on for dear life at 88 Nassau Street for several years, after another store sign came down and brought it back into view.

I’m not sure how long it’s been visible again, but it seems that it reappeared long after what remained of the once-renowned Loft Candies company closed its existing stores for good in the mid-1990s.

Not only have the neon red letters long gone dark, but the small, unusual building—at the edge of the Financial District—looks like it’s coming apart at the seams.

An Ephemeral reader who worked downtown for years snapped this recent photo (at top) of the sign; it’s the first time the reader spotted it and was astounded enough to take a picture.

The sign is in worse shape since I captured it in a photo in 2017 (at left). And while I don’t know when the store closed, it didn’t occupy this space until after 1940, since it doesn’t show up in the Department of Records 1940 tax photos database.

As dilapidated as it looks, imagine the Loft company in a sweeter time, say the first half of the 20th century—when its candies were popular all across New York City and ads for their holiday sweets appeared in all the city papers as Christmas approached.

Just think about how wonderful it was to get the “De Luxe Round Gift Box” as a gift, pictured above in the New York Daily News ad from holiday season 1941.

Or imagine the thrill of being a kid and finding a pound of “glass candies” in your stocking on December 25, as the 1914 ad in the Evening World suggested!

[Thanks to NA for snapping the recent photo!]

Was the Brooklyn Bridge really painted green?

December 23, 2019

Vintage postcards of the Brooklyn Bridge get me every time—especially postcards like this one, which show the bridge not as a symbol of New York’s might but as a reflection of the solitary and personal.

As much as I like this postcard, which is actually a reproduction of an older version, one thing stands out to me: Was the Brooklyn Bridge’s web of steel beams and cables ever really painted green?

Apparently not. The original color was either red or something dubbed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan,” according to a 2010 New York Post article.

This postcard is undated, but I’d place it in the 1920s—and so far I haven’t found any evidence that the bridge underwent a green paint job during that decade. But it sure makes for an enchanting postcard!

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.”