Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The most delicious ad on a Little Italy building

October 10, 2016

What’s left of Little Italy these days has been described as a tourist trap of restaurants, pastry shops, and knickknack stands.


But something about this two-story ad makes me pine to go back 100 years, when Mulberry Street was the center of an enormous neighborhood stretching from Houston Street to Columbus Park, busy with specialty food shops, peddlers, vendors, crime family social clubs, and 10,000 people at its peak.

Caffe Roma was there in those storied days; the place has been serving espresso and treats since 1891.

The Art Deco health clinic sign off Worth Street

October 7, 2016

I’ve always admired the building at 125 Worth Street, which houses the Departments of Health, Hospitals, and Sanitation (or at least did at some point since the building opened in 1935).

clinicdeptofsanitationEnormous Art Deco–inspired lanterns and bronze grillwork flank the entrances, and health-themed ornamentation decorate the facade.

Then there’s this small sign above an unremarkable flight of stairs descending to a basement door on the side of the building.

It reads “Clinic Department of Sanitation.” The lettering is lovely and eye-catching.


But I wonder who lined up outside this door decades ago when a clinic existed here, and what they came here to treat.

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.


“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”


New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)


New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.


Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The rich activists of New York’s “mink brigade”

September 9, 2016

Thanks to the labor movement and the push for women’s suffrage, New York in the first two decades of the 20th century was a hotbed of strikes and rallies—with thousands of women doing the organizing and walking picket lines.


Most of these activists were working-class women, often young immigrants, who toiled for low wages in dangerous sweatshops.

Marching alongside them and helping to finance their efforts were a group of extraordinary wealthy ladies who took their lumps from the press, later dubbed the “mink brigade.”

annemorganThese were the wives and daughters of the city’s richest men, women who used their bank accounts to stir up social change rather than entertain at society balls.

Two well-known members of the so-called mink brigade were Anne Morgan (left), daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, and former society queen bee Alva Belmont,  ex-wife of W.K. Vanderbilt and widow of banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Through an organization called the Women’s Trade Union League, Morgan and Belmont helped mobilize and support a strike by workers from the Triangle Waist Company (yep, that Triangle company).

That walkout eventually led to a citywide garment workers’ strike in November 1909 known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” (top photo).

“The socialites’ presence generated both money and praise for the strikers,” states Women’s America: Refocusing the Past.


“The move proved politically wise for the suffrage cause as well, because the constant proselytizing of suffrage zealot Alva Belmont, who often bailed strikers out of jail, got young workers talking about the vote.”

alvabelmontandfriendBy all accounts, Morgan and Belmont (in the photo at right, she’s in the mink) were serious about the causes they espoused and sincere in their efforts.

They paid fines for strikers and used their prominence to raise money. Their presence on the actual picket lines kept police brutality at bay.

Called off in 1910, the Uprising of the 20,000 was a partial success, with most sweatshop owners meeting the workers’ demands.

And suffrage, of course, was soon to be a nationwide win. Derided as monied meddlers during their day, the mink brigade turned out to be on the right side of history.

[Third image: New York Times headline December 9, 1909]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.


One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen

August 22, 2016

In the 1890s, huge numbers of New Yorkers donned new riding suits, bought or rented a bike, and took part in the cycling craze—peddling along park paths or roads newly paved with smooth asphalt.


Leisurely rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the century ride.

CenturyrideticketA century ride clocked in at 100 miles. It wasn’t a race but a feat of personal endurance. Each rider had 14 hours to get from start to finish and prove their cycling prowess.

“Bicycling clubs were formed all over the city,” reminisced future governor Al Smith in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now.

Centuryrideticketnj1895“You acquired full membership when you belonged to what was called the Century Club. That meant you had ridden 100 miles in a single day.”

Every neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top photo, in 1896).

Century rides were popular with young, athletic men. “With a number of young men from my neighborhood, I left Oliver and Madison Streets at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and wheeled to Far Rockaway,” wrote Smith.

Centuryridewhanderson1897“We went in swimming, had our dinner, and wheeled back.”

Century rides often went round trip from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island, as the ticket at the top right shows.

Another ticket from of an 1895 century ride lists each stop on the route from New York City to New Brunswick and back.

Century rides still take place today, and they sound like a lot of (very exerting) fun.

But their heyday remains the turn of the 20th century, when safer, more accessible bikes hit the market just as leisure time began to rise and a trend toward physical fitness gained popularity.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd street pavements improved—thanks to the invention of asphalt, which was put down on an increasing number of city roads that were once paved with blocks, stones, even wood.

The cycling craze wasn’t the only sports trend to hit New York in the 1890s. Baseball, tennis, boxing—find out more in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY, unknown photographer, 1896, accession number 49.300.7; second image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.14; third image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.16; fourth photo: W.H. Anderson, New York State Century Club winner; fifth photo: MCNY, Riverside Wheelmen Bicycle Club, 1888, X2010.11.13347]

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.


But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.


Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.


A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.


I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.


Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?


Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.


Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”


La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.


By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.


To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841

August 1, 2016

ColtmmurdernysunportraitLike lots of lurid murder cases, this one involved a rotting body.

In late September 1841, a sailor on the Kalamazoo—
docked for days at Maiden Lane because rain kept it from heading to its destination, New Orleans—
noticed a rancid odor coming from a shipping crate.

When investigators opened the crate, a man’s decomposing corpse appeared. Officers knew who he was: a Gold Street printer named Samuel Adams, who had been reported missing about a week earlier.

ColtmurderfindingthebodyAnd with the help of the car man who brought the crate to the dock and the clerk who handled the shipping paperwork, officials also knew the killer: a bookkeeper named John C. Colt, who was already being held for the crime.

Colt wasn’t just any numbers cruncher. He was the brother of Samuel Colt, of Colt revolver fame, and the scion of a prominent New England family.

Colt was socially connected, “of fine personal appearance,” wrote the New York Times, and an instant media magnate in a city already transfixed by the Mary Rodgers “Beautiful Cigar Girl” slaying.

ColtmurderhatcetnyplFittingly for a bookkeeper, Colt committed his crime during a fight about money. In his office at Broadway and Chambers Street on September 17, Adams had come to see Colt about money Colt owed him for printing Colt’s bookkeeping textbook.

The argument turned physical. After a struggle, Colt bashed Adams’ skull with a hatchet.

Colt confessed it all: how he scrubbed away bloody evidence, his plan to ship Adams’ body out of the city, and the grisly murder itself.

Coltmurdertombs1896“I then sat down, for I felt weak and sick. After sitting a few minutes, and seeing so much blood, I think I went and looked at poor Adams, who breathed quite loud for several minutes, then threw his arms out and was silent,” he confessed, according to the website Murder by Gaslight.

“I recollect at this time taking him by the hand, which seemed lifeless, and a horrid thrill came over me, that I had killed him.”

A famous family with a gruesome death made for a sensational trial.

Despite arguing that he killed in self-defense and that temporary insanity led him to try to ship Adams’ body, Colt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Tombs (right, in 1896).

ColtmurdertombshanginggallowsYet the story doesn’t end with a hanging. On November 18, Colt’s execution date, a fire raced through the Tombs. After the blaze was put out, Colt’s hanging was to go on. But a clergyman found him dead in his cell, a dagger in his heart.

Rumors swirled: was the fire set, and did Colt escape?

What really happened to Colt was such a topic of discussion, it’s even referenced in Bartleby the Scrivener, New York native Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about a Wall Street clerk who “would prefer not to.”

[Images: New York Sun; NYPL; Getty Images]