Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

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.

The end of the Stanton Street gravestone district

February 25, 2019

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Manhattan had its districts.

There was the garment district, the novelty district, the meatpacking district, and even a pickle district, where 80 merchants on a six-block stretch of Essex Street cured vegetables in barrels.

But this is all that remains of the city’s gravestone or monument district, once centered on Essex Street at Stanton Street.

The S. Silver sign in English and Hebrew still hangs off the second floor of the tenement at 125 Stanton Street.

“Silver-Monuments” is still above the storefront in old-school big black letters, and the company name is painted in yellow and black across three stories of the building’s facade.

But the actual monument shop itself, which had been carving granite headstones since 1946? The space where generations of grieving people picked out monuments for loved ones has been gone since 2015.

Today, it’s a yoga store, surrounded by the signage of the previous tenant. Silver Monuments packed up and moved to Queens two years ago, reported The Low-Down in 2017.

A travel writer under the spell of 1820s New York

February 18, 2019

Frances Milton “Fanny” Trollope was decidedly unimpressed by America when this wife and mother visited the young nation in the late 1820s.

She arrived with her sons in 1827 from her home country of England, stepping off in New Orleans and settling for a time in Cincinnati. Her British husband had financial difficulties, and she hoped to take advantage of the opportunities she believed America offered.

When her efforts failed, she left Ohio and set out for various East Coast cities. The travel log she published back in England in 1832 was titled Domestic Manners of the Americans.

The book was a monster hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though it earned American disdain.

It’s hard not to see why. According to Trollope, American roads were primitive, manners lacking, and culture nonexistent. She also called out the hypocrisy of a nation that heralded freedom yet enslaved African Americans.

But when it came to the seven weeks she spent in New York City, Trollope was almost starstruck.

“I have never seen the Bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New-York,” she wrote of her arrival by boat from New Jersey. (Above, South Street at Maiden Lane in 1827)

“Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

She noted the “beautiful” public promenade along the Battery (above left, in 1861) and “splendid” Broadway, with its “handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent troittoir, and well-dressed pedestrians.”

“Hudson Square (at right) and its neighborhood is, I believe, the most fashionable part of town,” Trollope wrote about this elegant enclave renamed St. John’s Park (at left).

She also praised the city’s night life. “At night the shops, which are open till very late, are brilliantly illuminated with gas, and all the population seems as much alive as London or Paris.”

During her stay she visited the three major theaters and pronounced the Bowery Theatre (at left in 1826) “superior in its beauty” to the Park or the Chatham.

She also visited theaters and churches where black New Yorkers went and worshipped, writing about the many free African Americans in the city.

According to Trollope, stylish women in New York wore only French fashions; houses were made of a rich brown stone called “Jersey freestone,” streets were well paved, everyone had plenty of ice to cool their food, and the villas in Bloomingdale, the West Side village far from the actual city, were beautiful.

She also praised the 19th century version of taxi drivers (at left, in the 1830s), even the one who ripped her off.

“The hackney-coaches are the best in the world,” she proclaimed, though admitting that she was way overcharged by one unscrupulous driver who took her for a tourist.

That didn’t change her feeling that Manhattan was the greatest urban space in the nation, and perhaps the world.

“[I] must still declare that I think New-York one of the finest cities I ever saw, and as much superior to every other in the Union (Philadelphia not excepted) as London to Liverpool, Paris to Rouen. Its advantages of position are perhaps unequaled anywhere.”

Here’s another female travel writer’s descriptive take on the colonial city she visited in 1704.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: View of South Street From Maiden Lane, New York City” by William James Bennett/MET Museum; third image: NYPL; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL; seventh image: “The Bay of New York Taken from Brooklyn Heights” by William Guy Wall/MET Musuem]

The haunting outlines of old New York buildings

January 28, 2019

Anyone who walks the streets of the city comes across these ghosts. They’re the faded outlines of what was once a New York home or building, sometimes still with the demarcations separating rooms—as the side of an empty tenement on Third Avenue and 109th Street shows in the image below.

Knocked down or uncovered during construction, they usually reveal themselves only for months, maybe a few years, before they are quickly covered up again when a new structure is built over it.

My favorites are the edges of the kinds of buildings New York doesn’t build anymore, like this second one above, what looks like a squat, three-story walkup with a small chimney. It was once attached to the side of a larger tenement on West 96th Street near Riverside Drive.

A peaked roof (above) at Franklin Street and one-block Benson Place north of City Hall piques my interest. Was an old Dutch or Federal-style building here in the 17th or 18th centuries, when Benson Place was still a dead-end alley?

This tenement-looking outline is an unusual one (above); it’s on Lexington Avenue in the 50s. I wonder what the view from the back must have looked like, and how easy it was to see what the neighbors in other tenements were doing.

On Madison Avenue and 31st Street, an old-school tenement that blended in with its neighbors was torn down (above). It looks like it was set back a bit from the sidewalk, and it too probably had a wooden water tower on top.

I noticed this phantom outline in Tribeca several months ago (above), but I still am not sure what kind of building stood here. Something appropriately low and squat, maybe a stable? The dark smudges on the brick building that used to be its neighbor look like smoke stains from a chimney.

This last one, I believe from Greenwich Street downtown, is also a mystery. The angle of the roofline makes me think it’s a remnant of an old Manhattan structure of some kind when the city was concentrated below today’s Soho.

The butcher cart comes to the downtown slums

January 21, 2019

Gritty, virile street scenes, tender portraits of humanity, iridescent landscapes: George Luks depicted early 20th century New York with astonishing versatility.

But if there’s one Luks painting that combines all three artistic strengths, it might be The Butcher Cart, which this social realist Ashcan artist completed in 1901.

“George Luks is known for his unromanticized depictions of the slums and crowded market streets of lower Manhattan,” explains the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the painting.

“In The Butcher Cart, he portrayed a dark view of New York street life, frankly acknowledging modern technology and class stratification,” “An old-fashioned horse-drawn cart packed with butchered pigs lumbers down a slushy street, steered by a man hunched over the reins.”

This Bowery theater gave performers “the hook”

January 21, 2019

When a city policeman turned U.S. congressman named Henry Clay Miner opened Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1878, this small venue between Broome and Delancey Streets showcased a type of entertainment known as variety shows.

“Actors came on the stage to sing, dance, and do acrobatic acts and then unite to burlesque some current musical show,” wrote the New York Times in 1929.

Even for the Bowery—legendary at the time for its raucous bars, theaters, flophouses, and music halls—Miner’s drew huge merciless crowds. Customers cheered, jeered, and stomped their feet in approval as each act did their number.

“Long before the doors opened, boys with the necessary 10 cents ready in their hands were lined up,” the Times recalled.

“It mattered little whether the show pleased them or not…they could have their enjoyment by annoying the 50 cent- or 70-cent patrons in the orchestra and boxes as they drank their beer below.”

Audience participation and reaction was all part of Miner’s allure.

So in the 1890s, after variety segued into vaudeville, Miner’s came up with a genius idea to make Friday night amateur nights even rowdier: giving entertainers “the hook.”

Yep, the showbiz taunt “give ’em the hook” was invented on the Bowery.

“To get the more excruciating acts off the stage as quickly as possible, an inspired stage manager apparently lashed a stage-prop shepherd’s crook to a pole and started yanking the most scorned performers bodily from the stage in mid-performance,” stated a New York Times piece from 1997.

Naturally the audience loved it all. There was also prize money for any act that survived the hook and went on to win audience favor: five bucks and any loose change they could find on the floor.

Most of the entertainers over the years who bravely risked the hook have fallen into obscurity. Others went on to great fame—including Eddie Cantor.

In 1908, this 16-year-old wannabe performer from the Lower East Side went on stage at Miner’s. He didn’t get jeered off.

“At the end of the night, Cantor lined up on stage alongside other amateurs who had survived ‘the hook,'” wrote David Weinstein in his 2018 biography of Cantor.

“The announcer pointed to each act, while the crowd voted for the winner with noise and applause.”

Cantor won the five dollar nightly prize. Getting the hook, meanwhile, remains a metaphor no aspiring performer wants.

Miner’s Theatre burned down in 1929, just as vaudeville was ending its run as America’s favorite lowbrow entertainment…and the sin-and-spectacle Bowery was becoming the city’s 20th century skid row.

[Top image: “Bowery at Night” by William Louis Sonntag, 1895; second image: MCNY 43.316.64; third image of H.C. Miner, NYPL; fourth image: tvtropes.org; fifth image: Evening World, 1912; sixth image: Eddie Cantor; seventh image: New York Times, 1909]

Manhole covers that left their mark on New York

December 31, 2018

To get a sense of modern, massive New York City, you have to look up and take in the scope of the bridges, apartment towers, and skyscrapers. But to uncover the city’s past, it helps to look down.

That’s where you’ll find manhole covers not stamped “Con Edison” or “Made in India” but embossed with a local manufacturer’s name and signature design motif. Instead of cookie cutter lids that all look alike, these covers turn a utilitarian object into something sublime.

One of my favorites is the one at the top of the page by J.B. and J.M. Cornell, a manufacturer of specialty and ornamental ironwork since 1828, according to glassian.com.

The address on the cover is that of the company; the cover itself was spotted in Brooklyn Heights. (Patented 1845!) The cover likely had glass over the holes at one time, allowing light through.

I love the large center stars the F.W. Seagrist Jr. company put on the iron lid in the second image, found on East 18th Street. According to fellow manhole cover fan Walter Grutchfield, the company was founded in the 1870s and went out of business in the 1920s, he wrote.

Stars were apparently a popular decorative element at the turn of the century, when these covers were installed. Here’s another cover from Frank & Bro, located on Sixth Avenue in Tribeca.

Grutchfield again has the backstory on these brothers, Max and David, and their hardware business that existed from 1888 to 1955. This cover appears to be so deeply embedded in cement, it’s possible it was installed before the 20th century.

This cover, from a hardware firm called Kasper and Koetzle, is part of a sidewalk in Greenpoint. The company operated from a store on Bushwick Avenue; they manufactured “heavy hardware” and began 12 years ago, according to this guide from 1914.

I’s a thrill to come across one of these rare Croton Water covers, which pay homage to the aqueduct built in 1842 that supplied the city with fresh, clean upstate water.

This lid was found in the 150s near Trinity Church in Washington Heights. (DPW: Department of Public Works.) Some of the Croton Water covers have dates on them, but unfortunately this one does not.

More city manhole and coal chute lids can be found here.