Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

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.”

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.