Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The best place for swimming in the East River

June 27, 2016

Swim in the East River? Without a wet suit, no adult would do it today, let alone allow their child to take a dip there.

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Yet even after the river became the dumping ground of the city’s untreated sewage, lots of people cooled off in its bracing, choppy waters.

Perhaps no group of New Yorkers relied on the river during the hot summer months more than poor tenement kids, who often faced overcrowded public swimming and bathing facilities or preferred the freedom of diving off a city pier with their pals.

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One of those tenement kids was Alfred E. Smith (below, in 1877), future governor of 1920s New York. In his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, he reminisced about his boyhood summer days in the river.

Eastriverswimalsmith1877age4coneyisland“The East River was the place for swimming, and as early as April and as late as October the refreshing waters of the East River, free entirely at that time from pollution, offered the small boy all the joys that now come to the winter or summer bather on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote.

Smith was born in 1873 in a house on South Street. His river swimming days were in the 1870s and 1880s.

“The dressing rooms were under the dock. Bathing suits were not heard of,” stated Smith.

“In fact, it would have been dangerous to suggest them, for fear you might be accused of setting a fashion that everybody else could not follow.”

EastriverpikeslipsignThat explains not only the many photos that exist from the era of unclothed boys jumping into the river but also George Bellows’ famous 1907 painting, 42 Kids.

“The popular swimming place was the dock at the foot of Pike Street, built well into the river, and there was a rather good-natured caretaker who paid no attention to small boys seeking the pleasure and recreation of swimming in the East River.”

Pike Slip (but no dock) still exists—almost entirely in the grimy shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

“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 Smith.

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“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.”

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[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second and fourth images: 1910 and 1912, George Bain/LOC; fifth image: from 1937, via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

The magic of old Cooper Square by moonlight

June 2, 2016

Here is a moonlit Cooper Square under a starry sky looking north around 1905.

It’s not a square but a triangular park, a juncture of elevated train routes and avenues, a place where old neighborhood boundaries shifted (like the early 19th century Bowery Village) and new ones (Noho, anyone?) popped up.

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It’s a carnival of history. On the right are modest Federal-style homes with dormer windows, built in the 1820s. Cooper Union’s 1858 Great Hall hosted presidential hopefuls going back to Abraham Lincoln.

A sketchier, pre-boutique hotel Cooper Square in late 1980s was also the site of a peddlers’ market of sorts, where the desperate put out anything they could find (or steal) for sale in an empty parking lot.

Vintage signs from a rough around the edges city

May 30, 2016

Some of these 1970s and 1980s–era signs are losing the battle with the elements, like this hand-painted original for Utica Avenue Electronics (VCRs!) in Crown Heights.

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Others advertise small businesses in a contemporary city that can be cruel to struggling mom and pop shops.

Perhaps that’s why Continental Shoe Repairs on Broadway and Barclay Street is no longer open.

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The sign for Ashland Pharmacy, in Fort Greene, notes that they accept the union plan.

Which union plan? In an older New York, when health insurance wasn’t quite so complicated, the distinction may not have mattered.

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City Water Meter Repair Co., Inc. is the only water meter repair shop I’ve ever seen.

Based on the condition of the sign (N.Y. City!), it looks like they’ve been around since the East Village’s heyday as a slumlord neighborhood.

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You have to love Fort Grene’s Luv-n-Oven Pizza: the rhyming name, the old-school white, green, and red sign, the fact that gyros and hamburgers are on the menu.

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A classic greasy New York corner pizza place that is making me hungry just looking at it.

Down on his luck at the Brooklyn docks in 1938

April 11, 2016

Reginald Marsh painted the city’s extremes: gaudy, seedy Coney Island, sex at burlesque shows, Bowery revelry, and the might and strength symbolized by ships and industry.

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But his solemn forgotten man (and a second man, lying down on the left) perched at the edge of a dock in 1938’s “Docks, Brooklyn” reveals a loneliness and despair unlike anything depicted in his other paintings and illustrations.

And it just sold for more than $6,000.

New York’s most charming holdout buildings

March 21, 2016

Amid New York’s soaring skyline are some lilliputian-size gaps—the low-rise, 19th century buildings whose owners refused to sell when a developer had plans to bulldoze and rebuild next door.

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These holdout buildings, now in the shadows of giants, are fun to come across—especially when the architectural style is so vastly different from its newer neighbor.

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That’s what I love about this photo of a Romanesque Revival former soap shop on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, dwarfed by a contemporary high rise.

HoldoutbuildingsSuttonplace

Same goes for these two stately townhouses on Sutton Place. Perhaps they were mansions in their day, but now clearly overwhelmed by the two pre- and post-war luxury apartment houses were built on either side.

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This townhouse on Lexington and 57th Street looks like it’s being subsumed. The bigger building is the former Allerton Hotel for Women, built in 1923.

The banner advertisement on the townhouse suggests it’s the property of the larger hotel.

Holdoutbuildingflatiron

A lovely three-story remnant of old New York has withstood the test of time in the East 20s off Broadway, sandwiched between two 1920s loft-style buildings. What stories it must have to tell!

The oldest street scene photos of New York City

March 7, 2016

France’s Louis Daguerre perfected the earliest form of commercial photography in 1839. It didn’t take long for others to seize the new technology and create daguerreotypes of New York City street scenes.

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These surviving early photographs offer a fascinating (if faded) glimpse into the city during an era when images were generally recorded with paint or ink, not copper plates.

At top is the Unitarian Congregational Church of the Messiah, which once stood on the east side of Broadway at the end of Waverly Place, surrounded by small free-standing houses.

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The photo was taken in 1839 or 1840 from the rooftop studio of Samuel F.B. Morse and John Draper, who worked together at New York University. (Draper also took what might be the first daguerreotype portrait in 1840—of his sister, Dorothy.)

The second daguerreotype captures Chatham Street (now Park Row) northeast of Chatham Square. It dates back to 1853-1855 and shows a commercial, working-class section of the city known for its shops, taverns, and dance halls.

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“Unlike the period’s printed views, which were generally designed for clarity and filled with drafting table anecdote, this photograph shows the city as an inelegant confusion of traffic, commercial signs, and pedestrians,” explains the link to the photo (which can be enlarged for careful study) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

And though it doesn’t necessarily count as a street scene because the street at the time was rural farmland, the third daguerreotype is an 1839 image of a lovely house and white fence on Bloomingdale Road, once a part of today’s Upper West Side.

The old city along the East River waterfront

February 8, 2016

Everett Longley Warner’s “Along the River Front” captures the city in 1912 on the cusp of change.

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The old New York waterfront, one of horse-drawn wagons loaded with packages heading to small commercial fish dealers and the office of a steamship line, have been dwarfed by the modern city’s enormous bridges and the traffic they carry.

Pier201900This photo, from 1900, gives an idea of what Warner was looking at. He changed the name of the steamship line from the New Haven Line to the Maine Line, for unknown reasons.

Warner was an impressionist painter who lived in New York in the early 1900s. Despite early notoriety, his lovely depictions of industry and commerce in the city haven’t made him a household name.

Unemployed men shoveling New York’s snow

January 25, 2016

Heavy snowfall, while lovely as it is to look at, creates a headache for most New Yorkers. But all that white stuff presents an opportunity for workers looking for extra cash.

Snowworkers1898heraldsquare

“12,000 Find Work in the Streets,” announced the headline for a New York Times story on February 15, 1914.

After 10 inches of snow had fallen, thousands of men lined up at “unemployment stations” established “in the lodging house districts” by the “cleaning department,” which sounds like it may have been part of the Department of Sanitation.

Snowshovelerslineupbain1908

In Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, “116 gangs of men were put to work in the streets in those boroughs,” wrote the Times, using old-fashioned shovels, horse carts, and 19 “automobile trucks.”

The pay? In 1902, it was 25 cents per cubic yard of snow. By the 1930s, workers racked up an easier-to-calculate 50 cents an hour.

While thousands of men were getting paid to haul the snow, a side industry popped up outside the lodging houses: men with pushcarts selling “strips of burlap and bagging,” so the pickers and shovelers could keep their feet warm.

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“Practically every ’emergency man’ at work in the street cleaning gangs last night had his feet incased [sic] in overshoes and leggings made of burlap bound with rope and twine,” reported the Times.

[Top and bottom photos: New York Times; middle: LOC/Bain Collection]

New York is a brick and mason wall ghost town

January 18, 2016

The construction boom across the city has this upside: after an old building has been flattened by the wrecking ball, its faded outline remains behind for a little while, before something new and shiny covers it up.

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These building phantoms give city streets an eerie vibe; they’re red brick and mason wall palimpsests of another New York. Look at the little chimneys that warmed what looks like a former Federal-style home on Bond Street?

Fadedoutlinedtbrooklyn

In Downtown Brooklyn, traces of a two-story tenement on the right hint at what kind of residences lined the streets of the independent city in the 19th century.

Fadedoutlineeast17thstreet

On East 17th Street in is a reminder of what this Flatiron block looked like when it was all low-rises, not tall lofts.

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This corner building in Chelsea must have cut a handsome, sturdy profile. The rooms of the second floor are still outlined too.

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Back when Jane Street was just a tiny lane in the village of Greenwich, there was a little house under this steep little roof.

The one-cent coffee stands for poor New Yorkers

December 28, 2015

StAndrewsonecentcoffee1933The first booth opened on Ann Street off Broadway in 1887, close to City Hall and the high-octane newspaper offices of Park Row.

Called St. Andrew’s One Cent Coffee Stand, it served a half-pint of coffee (plus milk, sugar, and a slice of bread) for a penny.

Within months, four more one-cent coffee stands appeared on busy downtown intersections.

The menu included hearty fare like beef soup, pork and beans, fish cakes, and fish chowder—with no item costing more than a cent.

The concept sounds like a 19th century version of today’s sidewalk coffee and donut cart. But St. Andrew’s wasn’t catering to busy commuters.

StAndrewscoffeejacobriisThe clientele was the city’s down and out—the “newsboys, emigrants, poor families, and street waifs,” as one writer put it in Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine.

Founded by Clementine Lamadrid, the stands helped feed struggling residents who might be too proud to accept free meals.

“Meal tickets are sold at the booths and the headquarters for one cent each, so that every charity disposed person may carry a supply,” explained the Frank Leslie’s article.

In a city that offered almost no public relief of any kind, one-cent coffee and food was a pretty good deal for a street kid or jobless adult.

StAndrewsonecentcoffeebainNot everyone agreed. The Charity Organization Society, a proponent of aiding the poor in exchange for work, charged that St. Andrew’s “encourage idleness and make industry unnecessary. They draw into the city crowds of tramps and beggars,” reported the New York Sun.

Lamadrid was also accused of using the stands to enrich herself, which she denied.

The stands only appear to have survived through the 1930s—but not before making a small bit of difference for thousands of hungry New Yorkers.

[Top photo: 1933, Getty Images; middle: Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives; bottom photo: Bain Collection/Library of Congress]


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