Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The bizarre 1916 plan to fill in the East River

February 12, 2018

“At first glance, a project to reclaim 50 square miles of land from New York Bay, to add 100 miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of 20 million seems somewhat stupendous, does it not?”

That’s the lead sentence in a fascinating article published in Popular Science in 1916, written with great enthusiasm by an engineer, Dr. T. Kennard Thomson.

Thomson had big dreams for New York City, and he laid them out in this article—his vision of making Greater New York a “Really Greater New York.”

The craziest idea? To turn the East River into a landfill extension of Manhattan, so “it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway.” A new East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay would then be built.

Also nuts is the plan to lengthen Lower Manhattan so it just about touches Staten Island, and rework the Harlem River so it extends in a straight line from Hell Gate to the Hudson.

The point of his Really Greater New York? To rake in more money.

“Imagine the value of this new land for docks, warehouses, and business blocks! The tax assessments alone would make a fortune!” Thomson writes.

But like moving sidewalks, a West Side airport, and 100-story housing developments in Harlem, and an even weirder 1934 plan to fill in the Hudson River, this is another bizarre plan for the city that never came to pass.

[Images: Popular Science]

The past lives of a modest 1809 house in Tribeca

February 5, 2018

Houses have stories. And the Dutch-style unassuming home at the corner of White Street and West Broadway can tell some fascinating tales.

The story of 2 White Street (or 234 West Broadway) begins in 1809, when a New Yorker named Gideon Tucker built this home, most likely the last in a row that stretched down White Street.

Tucker ran a successful plaster factory. He was also assistant alderman of the Fifth Ward and a school commissioner, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 1966.

Tucker’s house certainly wasn’t showy. But a man of his stature would build a place with some flair.

“Number Two White Street is one of those very rare brick and wood houses in New York which still retain its gambrel roof and original dormer windows,” explains the LPC report.

“Although it was completed in 1809, this house is eighteenth century in its feeling and style,” states The Landmarks of New York.

Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835.

Two White Street can give us a good idea of where and how New Yorkers lived in the decades following the Revolutionary War.

How long Tucker and his family resided there is unclear, or if it remained a one-family home. But by 1842, there was a different occupant: Reverend Theodore S. Wright.

Wright was born a free African-American in 1797. He was educated at the city’s African Free School, a one-room schoolhouse for the children of free and enslaved black New Yorkers. (Slavery wouldn’t officially end in the state until 1827.)

Wright became the first black man to earn a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, then helped lead the rising abolitionist movement in the antebellum city.

As a minister at the First Colored Presbyterian Church on Frankfort Street, he spoke out against the evils of slavery and founded abolitionist organizations, including the New York Vigilance Committee—which aimed to prevent black residents from being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

“In the 1840s, the Reverend Wright may have written speeches denouncing white prejudice by the light from the gabled windows of this very house,” states the New-York Historical Society.

Wright did more than write speeches; he may have used 2 White Street as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The house wouldn’t have been far from the Lispenard Street home of abolitionist David Ruggles, an Underground Railroad stop that over two decades sheltered about 600 runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass.

Wright died in 1847. Photos from the early 20th century show that the ground-floor retail space hosted a cigar shop, a barber shop, and at some point a liquor store.

Today it’s a J. Crew selling menswear, but the windows are still etched with the words “cordials” and “cognacs.” No trace of Tucker or Wright remain.

[Second photo: MCNY/33.173.221; third and sixth photos: NYPL]

New York City is a brick and mortar ghost town

February 5, 2018

New York is a haunted city. Everywhere you look are the phantoms and ghosts of old buildings that may have been torn down but never truly disappeared, leaving their faded outlines etched into the cityscape.

Between the time they meet the bulldozer and a replacement building goes up, these ghosts are visible—remnants of older versions of New York and the nameless people who lived and worked there.

The photo at the top, at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, reveals the outlines of a couple of different buildings. I see a tenement-style structure with three or four floors and two slender chimneys. Then there’s another building with a slope in the front.

On Eighth Avenue in Chelsea (below), two twin Federal–style homes from the early 1800s still stand. A third smaller house is just a faded outline of a pitched roof.

On Fulton Street is the imprint of a squat low-rise and the staircase that countless New Yorkers trudged up and down over the years.

Here’s the remains of a tenement in Flatiron. How many people lived their lives in this little building with the two chimneys?

Another pitched roof, a remnant of an era when they were fashionable (or simply practical). This one is on Broadway and Grand Street.

Against the side of a classic 19th century tenement is a short blocky building, near Penn Station.

On a corner in the far West Village is the outline of a building so long and low, I wonder if it could have been a stable.

This is Lower Manhattan as it looked in 1642

January 8, 2018

“The Great Highway” is Broadway. The “Common Ditch” was a rather filthy canal that once filled in became Broad Street.

And before landfill reshaped the Lower Manhattan shoreline, the waters of the North River (the Hudson to you and me) lapped at Greenwich Street.

It’s hard to believe that today’s city sprang from this tiny settlement. The map was drawn in 1897, but it purports to show the New Amsterdam of 1642.

At the time, Manhattan was resplendent with brooks and hills and had a colonial population in the hundreds. Things were hardly rosy; the director of the profitable fur-trading colony launched a war against native Americans that almost doomed it.

While Broadway, Greenwich, and Broad Streets still exist, other locations on the map are long gone. The Fort was Fort Amsterdam; the Sheep’s Pasture was filled in. The West India Company’s Garden is the present site of Trinity Church.

The garden sat on a bank overlooking a stream and was something of a lovers’ lane, “the resort of lad and lass for sentimental walk,” according to an 1874 guide, The Old Streets of New York Under the Dutch.

“Here, they viewed together the glories of the bay, illuminated with beams of setting sun . . . and listened to music of the wave, breaking over what was then the pebbly shore.” Romance-minded New Yorkers still head downtown to enjoy gorgeous views.

Finally, look at the names attached to the land grants: Stuyvesant, Van Cortland, Gerritsen, Ten Eyck—all names you can find on a map of the city today.

[Map at top: NYPL Digital Collections. Enhanced map: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.]

Old New York’s sleigh carnival began in January

December 31, 2017

Imagine a city where every January, when winter is at its most brutal and bone-chilling, New Yorkers parked their stages and omnibuses and excitedly hitched their horses to sleighs (like these in Central Park in the 1860s).

What was dubbed the “sleighing carnival” was an annual event in the 19th century metropolis (below, on Wall Street in 1834).

Once snow was on the ground and it was packed hard into the road, large sleighs were brought out for public transportation; “light” sleighs appeared too, kind of a personal carriage for joyriding, according to the Carriage Journal.

Joyriding meant going fast and thrilling passengers, as visitors to the city noted.

One of these visitors was Boston resident Sarah Kemble Knight, who wrote in her 1704 travel diary that New Yorkers’ winter fun involved “riding sleys about three or four miles out of town” in the Bowery.

While out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart,” Knight wrote.

By the 19th century, the appearance of sleighs became a carnival, one of speed, fun, and thrills.

In 1830, after a heavy snow fell in early January and temperatures plunged, “the New York carnival began, and the beautiful light-looking sleighs made their appearance,” wrote James Stuart in his 1833 UK travel memoir, Three Years in North America.

New York ladies apparently loved flying through the city on runners.

“The rapidity with which they are driven, at the rate of 10 or 12 miles an hour, is very delightful, and so exciting, that the most delicate females of New York think an evening drive, of 10 or 20 miles, even in the hardest frost, conducive to their amusement and health.”

The sleighing carnival last through the end of the century. (Above left, in Prospect Park.) Snow arrived in New York mid-January 1892, recalls the Carriage Journal, “and a regular sleighing carnival was the result.”

“The popular hours were from 3 to 5 p.m., during which thousands of sleighs thronged the Park and every imaginable vehicle that could possibly be used for pleasure riding was brought out.”

“Where all came from was a matter for surprise.”

[Top image: Currier & Ives, 1860s; second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY 45.271.1; seventh image: NYPL]

Santa’s dashing appearance in an 1868 candy ad

December 18, 2017

He looks a lot like the modern-day Santa Claus: red coat, whiskers, a sled pulled by reindeer. (That pipe, of course, has been erased.)

This 1868 sugar plum advertisement featuring Santa appeared five years after Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast famously reinvented the image of St. Nicholas from the “jolly old elf” in Clement Clark Moore’s poem to a grandfather-like guy in a red suit.

The US Confection Company, headquartered on West Broadway, wisely chose Santa to help shill their sugar plums—and Santa’s image has been used to sell products to children and adults ever since.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 has lots more about how New Yorkers invented the contemporary Christmas: the first public park tree lighting happened in Madison Square Park, electric lights were invented by a New Yorker, and the department stores of Ladies Mile claim the first holiday window displays.

 

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

The best vintage candy store sign in New York

November 27, 2017

It all started with William and Anna Loft, English immigrants who came to New York in the 1850s and opened a small candy store on Canal Street a decade later that sold homemade chocolates.

By the 1920s, Loft’s was the biggest candy retailer in the nation, with 75 stores (including this one below on Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope, circa 1959), according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Loft’s opened a candy factory in Long Island City in the 20th century—see the ad in the “female wanted” section of the Brooklyn Eagle in the wartime year of 1944.

Not a lot of men were around to do the wrapping, dipping, and stroking. I wonder what the pay was like.

After a series of missteps and mergers, the last Loft’s store closed up shop in 1990.

But the store sign at 88 Nassau Street downtown lives on—it’s a cut above Manhattan’s next best candy store sign at Economy Candy.

[Second Photo: the Park Slopian; Third Image: Brooklyn Eagle 1944]

What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley

November 27, 2017

Theatre Alley doesn’t look like much today.

Construction gear blocks the narrow roadway, and the street sign marking this one-block stretch between Ann and Beekman Streets besides Park Row has disappeared.

But imagine it in the early 19th century, with actors and theater professionals hanging around before a show and carriages lining up to pick up theatergoers after the curtain call.

That’s when Theatre Alley was the center of the city’s small but popular—and very rowdy—Theater District.

The most celebrated playhouse was the Park Theatre, built in 1798. Theatre Alley ran along the Park’s back entrance—or “stage entrance” as The New York Times called it in a 1947 article.

The Park was “designed by several of the French architects who flocked to America after the French Revolution, suggesting that the theater, always popular, had also become prestigious,” wrote Howard Kissel in New York Theater Walks.

It wasn’t the city’s first theater. The New Theatre on Nassau Street and the John Street Theatre opened in the mid-18th century near the site of the Park.

They catered to rowdy audiences who cheered the dramas, farces, and musical comedies—when they weren’t calling out to the actors and consorting with prostitutes in the back rows.

But the Park aimed for a more genteel crowd. Styled like a London playhouse, it featured seating for 2,000 “and contained curved benches in the pit and three tiers of boxes and galleries,” stated The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre.

The Park hosted the top actors of the era, from Edmund Kean to Junius Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Fanny Kemble, a popular actress who made her stage debut there in 1832.

Of course, the Park’s stab at respectability didn’t exactly work out; New York working-class audiences were particularly unruly theater patrons. Audience members routinely talked through performances and tossed apples and nuts at those seated below them.

Then there was the spitting. British writer Frances Trollope visited and recalled in her published 1832 travel diary the “yet unrazored lips” she saw were “polluted with the grim tinge of the hateful tobacco, and heard, without ceasing, the incessant spitting, which of course is its consequence.”

Theatre Alley long outlived its namesake. The Park burned down in 1820, then was rebuilt in 1821. It went up in flames again in 1848. By then, the Theater District had long departed Park Row.

New York’s theater scene followed the growth of the city northward, centering around Astor Place in the 1840s before relocating to 14th Street and inching up Broadway to Longacre Square by the turn of the century.

There’s another theatre alley now: Shubert Alley, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 44th Street. The original Theatre Alley is now a small footnote in New York’s glorious theater history.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the enormous popularity of the city’s theaters.

[Map: 1913 City of New York Independence Day Celebration Guide; third image: MCNY x2011.38.15; fourth and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections]

A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

November 20, 2017

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood.”

“At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]