Archive for the ‘Out-of-date guidebooks’ Category

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

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]

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]

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]

A lovely day to relax in Green-Wood Cemetery

May 15, 2017

It might sound a little macabre to our modern sensibilities.

But in a city with almost no public parks until the late 19th century, what better place was there to take in the fresh air and views of New York Harbor and enjoy the natural landscape than a burial ground?

Which is why half a million Brooklynites and tourists a year flocked to Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.

Green-Wood was one of the new “rural” cemeteries that allowed people to stroll the grounds, ride 17 miles of carriage drives, and picnic inside a necropolis of 150,000 souls by 1870, according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“[T]he sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar,” wrote author James D. McCabe, in wonderfully flowery Victorian-era prose.

Green-Wood “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”

[Top photo: Green-Wood Cemetery; bottom photo: NYPL]

The wild history of Central Park’s Ramble Cave

February 27, 2017

It’s known as the Ramble Cave or Indian Cave, its remains viewed today from a footpath through the Ramble Arch in the woodsy, boulder-strewn Ramble section of Central Park, just below 79th Street.

caverambleeasternside

The cave was discovered by workers building the park in the 1850s. Designers Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted incorporated it into their plans for the Ramble (below, in 1900), which they envisioned to be “a wild garden.”

cavemcnyx2010-11-1419therambleincentralparkUnfortunately for urban explorers, both ends of the cave (one was accessible through the lake, the other beside the Ramble Arch) were sealed in 1934.

Yet in the years it existed, it earned an early reputation as a place of fun and adventure—then something more disturbing.

First, the fun part. Unsurprisingly, the cave was a thrill for kids, an “Eldorado of pleasures.”

“See that stone bridge half hid by flowering vines,” explains an 1877 children’s magazine article about the park. “And this place? What’s here? A cave! The boys go into the black hole in the rock and the girls timidly follow.”

cavenypl1863thecavefromtheramble

The cave was also tinged with romance, a “bold and romantic rock chamber” as an 1861 Harper’s Monthly article described it.

“It is a romantic rock fissure, which opens northward at the base of the western slope of the Ramble, and southward upon a little arm of the lake,” stated an 1866 guide.

caveramblerunawaynytheadline1897It might also be the same “wild but beautiful” cave where one 15-year-old runaway hid for a month in 1897, worrying her immigrant parents before being found by police, sitting on a rock and soon forced out.

But after the turn of the century, based on newspaper accounts, the cave gained a darker edge.

In 1904, an artist was found guilty of disorderly conduct after another man, a baker, claimed that the artist walked him to the “Indian Cave” with the intent of robbing him.

cavenypl1863rusticarch

Twenty-five years later, 335 men—some found hanging out in the cave—were charged with the crime of “annoying women.”

cavesuicideheadlinenytHarassment is one thing—suicide another. In 1904, a man killed himself with a shot to the heart on the steps of the cave. “My name is boy,” a note in his pocket said, reported the New York Times. “No relatives in this country.”

And in 1908, another man slit his throat with a razor there, telling a cop, “one of the sparrows told me to do it,” according to the Sun.

All of this unsavory activity led park officials to shut the cave off to the public.

cavecloseupeasternsideramblearchThe lakeside opening was bricked off and the Ramble entrance blocked by boulders and dirt.

Walk by the Ramble Arch today, and you wouldn’t know a cave used to be here—though the remains of a staircase that once led to it can be seen by eagle-eyed explorers.

[Second photo: The Ramble in 1900, MCNY, x2010.11.1419; third photo: The cave from the Ramble, NYPL 1863; fourth image: New York Times headline 1897; fifth photo: the Ramble arch near the cave, NYPL, 1863; sixth image: New York Times headline, 1904]

Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

January 23, 2017

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City

January 16, 2017

On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.

naomisternbrothers1899nypl

After arriving and meeting up with Naomi’s older sister Josie, a Manhattan resident, the family settled into the West 118th Street home of their host, a Mrs. Purdy.

naomicentralparkmallThrough early February they did what most first-time tourists do: they visited museums and Central Park (left), window-shopped stores, took in the Bowery, and saw the seashore at Coney Island.

What makes King’s visit so unique is that it occurred in January 1899.

And because King kept a travel diary (part of the Archives & Manuscripts Collection at the NYPL), contemporary readers get to experience the Gilded Age city as it appeared through her impressionable eyes.

naomicentralparkbandLike any trend-driven tween, King wrote about the clothes displayed in stores like Stern’s (top image) in the Ladies Mile shopping district.

“We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” she wrote.

She saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

naomizoo1895mcny93-1-1-18316The family strolled the mall in Central Park “under the arches of the beautiful trees whose branches interlaced overhead” and saw the bandstand (above) “where Sousa’s celebrated band plays all during the summer. . . . “

They were impressed by the lions (left) and hippos at the zoo. “Beside [the lions was] the royal Bengal tiger and his mate next to him in a separate cage, while a horrid hyena paced up and down his cage.”

King and her parents gawked at the mansions of Fifth Avenue. “We passed Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s elegant residence (below right). . . . “

naomiwkvanderbiltmansion“A little farther on we saw old Mr. Vanderbilt’s residence and a wealthy gentleman Mr. Rockefeller whose mansion is even finer than the Vanderbilts.'”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the family visited some of the city’s notorious charitable institutions, which King wrote about movingly.

On Randall’s Island at the House of Refuge (below), kind of a 19th century reform school, she saw boys working in the institution’s laundry department.

naomihouseofrefugemcny91-69-1811915

“We passed however a large hall of locked cells which the larger boys sleep,” she wrote. “They lock them up to prevent making their escape.”

Also on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War city.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“We . . . went to the baby residence, the home of the little waifs who were picked up out of the city’s ash barrels and dark alleyways. They looked so frail in their white  cot beds. . . . There are so many babies and yet not one little face that looked like another.”

What became of King after her visit I wish I knew.

But her travel diary stands as a testament to the wonder and tragedy of New York on the cusp of the 20th century.

The Gilded Age in New York includes these excerpts from King’s diary—as well as diary excerpts from other New Yorkers of the era. Many thanks to the NYPL for permission to cite the text in the book.

[Top three photos: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth photo, MCNY: 93.1.1.18316; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]

The curious 1870s cat hospital on Division Street

January 9, 2017

Even 19th century New York had its cat ladies—and the New York Tribune wrote about one Lower East Side cat lady’s curious tale.

cats4

“On Division Street, about midway between Essex and Norfolk Streets, in this city, stands a three-story, dilapidated wooden building, that evidently dates back to the Dutch period of the city,” stated the Tribune in 1878 (image below).

divisionstreetcatsnypl1861“The third floor is given up to Mrs. Rosalia Goodman, better known by the children in that vicinity as ‘Catty Goodman,’ because she devotes much of her time to the comfort and relief of persecuted cats.”

Goodman, a widow, rented out rooms in her home and left two rooms for herself and about 50 cats, reported James McCabe’s New York by Gaslight, in 1882.

She didn’t run a hospital, as articles describing her as one of the city’s “great curiosities” claimed; Goodman seemed to simply care for homeless felines.

“Lying in the closets, on the tables, and under the stove, were cats of all descriptions,” wrote the Tribune. “Some had broken limbs or missing eyes, the result probably of prowling around at night.”

cathospitalclippinThese were some lucky tabbies. In 1894, New York’s chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took charge of the city’s homeless cat situation by trying to find homes for them—or gassing them.

“Mrs. Goodman receives no pay for her attention to the cats, only the satisfaction which it gives her to attend to the maimed, neglected animals.”

“Her idiosyncrasy is so well known in the neighborhood that whenever a cat is found that is in want of food, or is in any way injured, the unfortunate sufferer is without delay placed in her charge.”

[Top image: New York by Gaslight; second image: Tribune article; third image: NYPL]

An “almost accurate” map of the Village in 1925

September 2, 2016

By 1925, Bohemian Greenwich Village had been declared dead, killed off by tourists and college kids.

But the neighborhood of curio shops, theaters, tea rooms, and speakeasies still attracted painters, writers, poets, and illustrators.

GreenwichVillagemap1925quill

One illustrator was Robert Edwards, who drew this playful and personal map of his Greenwich Village for Quill, a short-lived monthly “little magazine” steeped in satire.

GreenwichvillagequillEdwards describes his hand-drawn map as “almost accurate.” It looks pretty on target. Washington Square North is marked “aristocrats,” while south of the park is Italia and west of Christopher Street is Erin, for its Irish population.

Romany Marie’s, the (Bruno’s) Garret, and the Crumperie on Washington Place are in history’s dustbin. So is the speakeasy Club Fronton and the Sixth Avenue El, memorialized by John Sloan and e.e. cummings.

The map was part of an exhibit on Greenwich Village staged in 2011 by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Check out more maptastic views of 1920s and 1930s Greenwich Village.

[Quill cover: Printmag.org]