Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

November 16, 2015

FrenchquarterboulangerieThe Germans had Kleindeutschland in the East Village. The Chinese had Mott Street. Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side.

And from the 1870s to 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in today’s Soho, roughly between Washington Square South and Grand Street and West Broadway and Greene Street.

Bakeries, butchers, cafes, shops, and “innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner, vin compris, may be had for the veriest trifle” occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.


An 1879 article in Scribner’s Monthly took readers on a wildly descriptive sojourn through the Quartier Francais, as the writer calls it.

FrenchquarterrestaurantIt’s not always so flattering. “The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

The writer of the article walked readers past tenements, with young girls fabricating fake flowers inside, to cafes where patrons drink absinthe.

A shop run by an old woman features this sign: “sabots et galoches chaussons de Strasbourg.” A restaurant called the Grand Vatel (right) “has some queer patrons.”

FrenchquartertavernealsacienneOn Greene Street is the Tavene Alsacienne (left), with its “impoverished bar” and worn billiards table, and groups of coatless men absorbed in their games.

Table d’Hote restaurants abound. “In the French Quarter in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, and elsewhere downtown, are several unique and low-priced establishments of this character,” according to King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Frenchquarter2015Like so many ethnic neighborhoods, this French Quarter didn’t last. By the turn of the century, the city’s small French colony relocated to West Chelsea.

“Twenty-sixth Street west of Sixth Avenue begins to take on the air of the old French Quarter,” reported The Sun in 1894.

“It has several French restaurants, three or four French shoemakers . . . a French grocer or two, and several French bushelling tailors.”

[Top image: NYPL Buttolph Collection of menus; sketches from Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879]

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.


“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

Haunting desolation on South Street in the 1930s

October 26, 2015

South Street was a still and empty place of tenement dwellers overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge in “South Street Stoop,” painted in 1935 by O. Louis Guglielmi.


“[Guglielmi’s] dreamlike works were critical commentaries on the social injustices of capitalism,” states Bruce Weber, author of Paintings in New York.

“The son of Italian immigrants, Guglielmi had grown up in Harlem and experienced  his own financial difficulties in the early 1930s and applied for federal relief. Beginning in 1935, he received a regular government paycheck as a member of the easel division of the Works Progress Administration.”

Vintage signs from 1960s and 1970s New York

October 5, 2015

They’re an endangered species, these 1960s and 1970s store signs, with their old-school cursive lettering and often sporting a kaleidoscope of colors.


The sign for Murray’s Sturgeon Shop is a gorgeous example.

Short, sweet, and stylized, the sign looks very 1960s, though Murray’s has been in the smoked fish business on Broadway and 89th Street since 1946.


The Weinstein & Holtzman Hardware sign bursts with magnificent color on Park Row near City Hall. They’ve been selling paint and tools sine 1920.

Hardware stores all over New York have some wonderful vintage signs.

I can’t find any information on when Truemart Discount Fabrics, on Seventh Avenue and 25th Street, opened.


But that old-school sign! It’s a relic of lower Seventh Avenue’s low-rent past, influenced by the Fashion Institute of Technology across the street.


The sign for Anthony Liquors, Inc. on Spring Street in Nolita isn’t splashy, but the typeface is unique. I wonder if other store signs in what once was Little Italy had the same type.


I’ve always liked the sturdy, simple sign for John’s Shoe Repair on Irving Place, and the confident line underscoring the name John, done in script.

I hope they can keep going in a city that doesn’t have much use for neighborhood shoe repair places.

A bumpy dedication of the Statue of Liberty

September 28, 2015

Statueoflibertymoran1886On October 28, 1886, the city had scheduled a day of festivities for the official dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Things mostly went off well, but not without plenty of hitches that turned the celebration into a comedy of errors.

First, there was the cold, miserable rain, which poured down on marchers during the morning parade from 57th Street to Madison Square Park to the Battery.

President Cleveland (a former governor of New York State) was to lead the parade and then watch from a reviewing stand at Worth Square—which he did, umbrella-less, with sheets of rain pouring down on him for two hours.


In the afternoon, after the city’s first-ever ticker-tape parade, an official dedication ceremony took place on what was once known as Bedloe’s Island—with thousands of New Yorkers watching from the Battery.

Interestingly, no regular citizens were allowed on the island, and few, if any, women were invited. A group of suffragists rowed out close, though, and held their own ceremony, hoping the day would come when women had the liberty to cast votes.


The 2,500 or so French and American dignitaries invited to the ceremony were treated to music, prayers, gun salutes, speeches, and finally, the unveiling of the copper-colored statue, which had been shrouded in a French flag.

The wet flag was lifted prematurely, however, in the middle of a speech by New York Senator William Evarts, cutting Evarts off.


After President Cleveland accepted the statue from France, a flotilla of ships began setting off alarms in celebration, drowning out the rest of the speeches.

The boats also released plumes of smoke, which along with the clouds and mist made it even harder for crowds on shore to see the copper-colored statue.

Statueofliberty1890sA huge fireworks display had to be cancelled that night because of the rain. And the actual lighting of the statue?

It didn’t go off well, mainly because no one could figure out how to light Lady Liberty properly—odd, as she was supposed to be an official lighthouse for New York Harbor.

Finally, on November 1, the city did a do-over of the fireworks and illumination. According to the New York Times, at least the phyrotechnics went of splendidly.

“Land and sea alike were teeming with glories. The vast fleet added not a little to the scene—the distant city with its million lights and flame-tipped spires was a sight to be remembered itself.”

“When the last rush of rockets from the island had scattered their showering gold and the wonted darkness settled again, the great figure grew brighter and huger and gleamed ghostly but beautiful, the new Anadyomene, Liberty rising from the sea.”

A rat attack near City Hall in 1970s New York

July 13, 2015

AnnstreetsignThe number one nightmare scenario of every New Yorker: coming into close physical contact with rattus norvegicus, or the typical city street and sewer rat.

Now imagine being attacked by a horde of these greasy creatures. That’s what actually happened to one woman while heading to her car parked on a street near city hall, where an empty lot that once held a tavern was now home to hundreds of rats.

It happened in the summer of 1979, during a tugboat strike that left trash and garbage rotting on city streets.


At about 9 p.m., a woman described by witnesses as being in her 30s was walking on Ann Street near Theatre Alley (above), south of City Hall.

“Judging from the various accounts, she seems to have been approached by the rats as she was walking toward her car,” wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

NYCgarbagestrike1981“She also seems to have noticed the rats coming near her, their paws skittering on the street. Witnesses said the rats swarmed around the woman. One climbed her leg and appeared to bite her.”

The woman understandably began screaming; a man tried to help her by waving his jacket in front of the rats, but unafraid, they simply climbed up the coat.

The hysterical woman finally made it to her car and closed the door, with the rats climbing all over it.

Theatrelley1999nyplWhen police arrived, “the rats were still there, scurrying through the streets and into Theatre Alley and into nests on a lot on Ann Street around the corner,” wrote Sullivan.

The unnamed victim of the rat attack was reported to city papers the next day. New Yorkers accustomed to living among rats shuddered.

Only the police doubted the story because nobody went to a hospital within 50 miles of the city for injuries consistent with a rat attack, wrote Jerry Langton in Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Sullivan’s book and newspaper accounts. however, take the story to be true.

[Third photo: garbage strike in a pre-gentrification New York City; NY Times; fourth photo: Theatre Alley in grittier days in 1999; NYPL/Dylan Stone]

An early photographer’s shadowy, soft-focus city

June 29, 2015

Born in 1886, Karl Struss distinguished himself as a cinematographer in early black and white movies, working with Cecil B. Demille and Charlie Chaplin, among others.

But before his film career took off, he worked as a commercial photographer in his native New York City. His moody, atmospheric images capture the lights and shadows of a horse-powered, low-rise city as it enters the modern, mechanized 20th century.

[West Street, 1911]


As a child, Struss became entranced by his brother’s wooden folding camera. He then learned his way around the darkroom and taught himself printmaking. Later he took classes at Columbia University with Clarence White, a member of the Photo-Secessionists, a group of artists who argued that photography wasn’t about merely recording an image but capturing something artistic and creative.

Through White he met Alfred Stieglitz, who invited Struss to exhibit his work in a 1911 show.

[Manhattan Bridge, 1910]


“Any portfolio of his work from 1909 until 1916 alternates Old World scenic and pastoral vistas with the harder-edged urban lines of New York City, especially its long, ominous night shadows and brilliant source lights,” states a profile of Struss on the American Society of Cinematographers website.

“For several years Struss had been working assiduously to promote himself as a commercial as well as an art photographer; his personal goal was to demonstrate that the two kinds of work were not incompatible.”

[Herald Square, 1911]


His print photography days were numbered. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, he enlisted in the Army but never left America because of rumors reportedly spread by his photography world colleagues that he was disloyal to his country.

[Mercedes Autobus, Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, New York, 1912]


Struss1912clarencewhite“This ugly episode may have been the catalyst that led him to leave the chummy world of New York art photography for the freewheeling film scene in Hollywood,” states a New York Times article from 1995.

Struss remained in the movie industry, earning awards and working through the 1950s. He died in 1981, in time for his own resurgence as a leading photographer who helped elevate photographer to an art form—along with other pioneering picture-takers, like Paul Strand and the more abstract Langdon Coburn.

[Right: Karl Struss in 1912, by Clarence White

Something beautiful hiding under City Hall

June 22, 2015

No turnstiles, no token or MetroCard machines, no posters or maps—just a lovely vaulted-ceiling platform with an oak ticket booth at City Hall.


This City Hall station, with its chandeliers and skylights, had a short life span, from 1904 to 1945. You can catch a glimpse of it if you stay on the 6 train as it uses the City Hall station to loop back uptown again.

The ticket booth is long gone, but the station itself remains, sometimes open for tours, as seen in these recent photos.

Congratulations to these old New York graduates

June 8, 2015

It’s commencement season, the perfect time to look back at images of long-ago graduates posing in class photos. What in the world became of them?


The suited up boys in this 1915 photo, new graduates of P.S. 64 at 605 East Ninth Street, look like they’re going places in life.

P.S. 64 opened in 1906, not long after the consolidation of the city, a time of huge investment in new school facilities. “Organized around two courtyards, it was the first elementary school to have an auditorium with direct access to the street, allowing this structure to serve an expanded role in the community,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.


Brooklyn Friends is a private school in downtown Brooklyn founded in 1867. This is the class of 1943, decked out in graduation suits and gowns.


Elementary and high schools aren’t the only institutions that hold a commencement ceremony. Meet the 1885 nursing school graduates from Broad Street Hospital, formerly at the end of Broad Street.

News photographer George Bain captured this image of the graduates of the “Cripple School” on the Lower East Side’s Henry Street in 1912.


Officially known as the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School, the school intended to “provide the crippled children of the Lower East Side with facilities for securing an education and learning a trade, so that they may become self-supporting,” according to a 1920 guide.

“Workrooms maintained where older cripples fill orders for all kinds of needlework and hand stitching and paper boxes.”

A Tribeca eyesore built to withstand nuclear war

May 11, 2015

LonglinesbuildingTribeca is a wonderland of 19th century buildings, from brick warehouses to Federal-style homes.

But one 550-foot Brutalist building that looms over Thomas Street, a hulk of pink windowless granite that looks like a giant Lego block, harkens back to the height of the Cold War.

This is the AT&T Long Lines Building, built in 1974 to house crucial telecommunications equipment.

LonglinesbuildingDesigned with disaster in mind, the structure was built like a fortress to withstand a nuclear blast and be self-sufficient for two weeks, in the event of a nuclear attack on New York City.

“The interiors were designed with high ceilings and large floor plates, spaces where telephone-switching equipment is housed and can be easily maintained,” wrote the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

“Aesthetic choices were, in part, also shaped by security concerns.”

“Not only is the Thomas Street entrance raised far above the sidewalk (similar to the plan of One World Trade Center), but this critical communications facility was also reportedly planned to withstand a nuclear blast.”


Unlike other former telecommunications buildings, the Long Lines building, quite imposing and with no windows, is probably never destined to be turned into co-ops.

[Second photo: Andrew St. Clair/Flickr; third photo:]


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