Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

How things looked one wet night on the Bowery

October 8, 2018

A shapely woman holding (posing?) with an umbrella in front of a brightly lit store window. A statue outside a cigar store.

Car lights up ahead, under the hulking steel tracks of the elevated train, making the Bowery appear darker and more ominous than usual.

And in the background beyond the cigar store are at least two men, forced by the rain and probably circumstance into the shadows of New York’s most blighted skid row at the time.

This is how John Sloan saw the Bowery one wet night in 1911.

The little-known history of tiny Catherine Lane

September 24, 2018

Catherine Street is in Chinatown; Catherine Slip is near the South Street Seaport. But Catherine Lane? It’s easy to miss.

That’s partly because Catherine Lane only spans one block, running from Broadway to Lafayette Street above Worth Street. This slender street doesn’t seem to have any commercial buildings or residences as far as I can tell.

The other thing keeping it a secret is the construction scaffolding that obscures it from view, shrouded it in darkness for years.

Since Catherine Lane hasn’t seen the light of day in a long time and it’s unclear whether it has a future, I decided to look into this little alley’s past. There’s not too much about it, but I dug out a few tidbits.

This alley was named for Catherine Rutgers. She was a daughter in a prominent Dutch colonial family, and in 1732 she married into a similarly prominent and wealthy family (the Rutgers of Rutgers Street and Rutgers University).

It was originally known as Catherine Place, according to Valentine’s Manual of Old New York. But Catherine Lane is the name it goes by in 19th century newspaper stories, the oldest of which describes a runaway cow in 1810 at the corner of Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street).

In 1845, the New York Daily Herald reported a sale of a two-story frame house at that same corner. Price: $3000.

Catherine Lane was going downhill by the 1850s. It was listed as “filthy” in an 1857 report on “deplorable” streets, along with many neighboring roads.

By the 1890s, it was the scene of a murder at a boarding house. “There are a few old houses on [Catherine] Lane, which runs back from Elm Street, toward Broadway, between Worth and Leonard Streets. Mrs. Thompson had kept a boarding house there since 1856,” the New-York Tribune wrote.

Also in the 1890s, Catherine Lane landed in the news because of a building that went up on the corner.

The New York Life Insurance Company built their new headquarters here. The McKim, Mead, & White clock tower building is still on the corner or Catherine and Broadway today.

[Third image: Catherine Lane at Broadway, undated; MCNY. Fourth image: Evening Post, 1810]

The faded cornerstone of the old police building

September 17, 2018

At the turn of the last century, when the newly consolidated New York needed a bigger, more modern police headquarters, city officials pulled out all the stops to build something glorious.

The result was a Beaux Arts beauty dominating slender Centre Street in what used to be Little Italy: a granite central pavilion and Corinthian columns topped by a gilded dome and an allegorical statue representing the five boroughs.

Completed in 1909, the new building was designed to “impress both officer and prisoner…with the majesty of the law,” according to a 1978 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The NYPD moved out of 240 Centre Street into newer, much uglier headquarters in the 1970s. But if you walked by the former police building today, you’d probably have no idea of its history.

Since 1988, 240 Centre Street has been a luxury condo, and it seems as if the developers did everything possible to erase anything relating to the police department on the facade.

Only the cornerstone, unveiled in May 1905 by Mayor George McClellan in a grand ceremony that featured a police band and mounted troops, provides a faded, chipped-away clue to the building’s former use.

[Second photo: Streeteasy]

The old-school subway signs at Chambers Street

September 17, 2018

Walking through the Chambers Street IRT station on the West Side not long ago, I noticed these tile subway signs, pointing riders in the right direction to the 1, 2, and 3 trains.

The station itself opened in 1918, and the signs look a lot newer than that. It’s kind of nice that the old-school spelling of uptown and downtown remain—with both words broken into two, so the signs read “up town trains” and “down town trains.”

They’re charming touches that take you back in time to a different New York as you make your way to your train. Luckily, other examples of vintage subway signage can be found in and outside various stations through the city.

The sign behind the sign at a Grand Street store

September 10, 2018

I’m not sure exactly when 229 Grand Street was built in the late 19th century. But as far as Lower East Side walk-ups go, it’s a cut above its neighbors.

That’s mainly because of the Gothic-inspired upper windows and the decorative accents on the ground-floor storefront.

And the checkerboard pattern at the entrance to the building—another wonderful old-school touch.

M. Kessler Hardware has occupied 229 Grand Street for decades. (It’s never open when I walk by late in the evening, but I assume it still operates.)

The shop has been there for so long, you can even see the Kessler name in flaked, faded paint on the window behind the more prominent hand-painted “M. Kessler Hardware” sign.

But look closely on the glass above the entrance door at the left. It looks like another layer of faded paint spells out “jeweler.”

Did Kessler share the space with a jeweler or jewelry store—or did a jeweler set up shop here between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery before Kessler Hardware came along?

A clue emerges in the New York Times archive. A January 1927 story describes the trial of a man accused of a “gem holdup” at a pawnshop at 229 Grand Street; $47,000 in jewelry was stolen at gunpoint from the Schwartz Brothers pawnbrokers.

With a haul like that, it sounds like this pawnshop had an extensive jewelry collection and may have advertised that on the store window.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

Looking down at mosaic store signs in Little Italy

September 3, 2018

Lots of New York City shops used to have them: mosaics or tile inlays embedded in the sidewalk that proudly spelled out the name of the establishment at the store entrance.

These underfoot signs are few and far between in the contemporary city. But in the Little Italy of Lower Manhattan, specifically on Grand Street off Mulberry, you can still find them.

E. Rossi’s mosaic sign is one of the most colorful. This Italian gift and music store was established in 1910, according to the website.

Piemonte Ravioli opened its doors in 1920 and offers a maddening variety of homemade pasta. The sidewalk sign isn’t as colorful as E. Rossi’s, but it feels authentic and old school.

Ferrara beats E. Rossi and Piemonte when it comes to longevity. This bakery has been cranking out pastries since the late 19th century.

F. Alleva bills itself as America’s oldest cheese shop, founded in 1892. And according to this post from Eater, Tony Danza is one of the owners.

Food and lonely figures at old Washington Market

August 20, 2018

It’s hard to imagine that some of the wide, quiet, clean streets of today’s Tribeca once formed a loud, stinking, open-air food hub called Washington Market.

Opened in 1812, Washington Market boomed, with more than 500 vendors and 4,000 wagons crisscrossing the food stalls and tenement-fronted alleys in the 1880s.

The market continued to attract buyers, sellers (and vermin, among other unpleasant things) through the 20th century, as artist David Burliuk reveals in this 1931 painting.

“The work is thought to depict Reade Street and the Washington Market area of Tribeca; the view is towards the Morse building which was designated a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Committee in 2006,” states Art Knowledge News, in an article on the painting going up for auction. (Bids were estimated to start at $40,000.)

“The market itself was razed in the 1970s, and a small park by its name is all that remains of what was once New York’s principal produce market.

Crossing the street on the right, is that a cat or a rat?

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

Labor and pleasure at the Old Slip banana docks

July 30, 2018

Bananas are so ubiquitous in New York, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t fish a few coins from your pocket and buy one at a corner bodega or sidewalk fruit vendor.

But this exotic food was a luxury item after the Civil War, selling for the equivalent of two bucks. Each banana came peeled and sliced, as the shape of the fruit violated Victorian codes of decency, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

With New York one of the busiest port cities in the world, it wasn’t long before fruit companies began shipping mass quantities of bananas on ships arriving at the “banana docks” at the Old Slip piers near Wall Street.

Unloading bananas looked like hard work, according to these turn of the century images. But for small boys in the neighborhood, the banana docks presented opportunities.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in his 1929 autobiography.

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

[Top photo: MCNY, 1906, X2011.34.4388; second photo: 1904 LOC]

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.