Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

Loveliness in turn of the century Bryant Park

October 24, 2016

Here’s Bryant Park in 1913, just a few years after the New York Public Library building opened on the site where the Croton distributing reservoir once stood (hence the park’s original name, Reservoir Square).


But whose bust is that in the foreground?

It’s Washington Irving‘s, according to the Bryant Park Blog. Apparently the city placed this sculpture here because Irving once served on the park’s advisory council.

Removed during a 1930s park renovation, the bust is now part of Washington Irving High School near Gramercy Park.

What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court

October 10, 2016

New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.


And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.

jeffersonmarketstairsIt’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).

Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.

Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.

This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.


There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.

jeffersonmarketcourtdoorUpstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.

Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.

The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.

Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.


It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.

jeffersonmarketnyplsketchcriminals“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.

“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”

Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”

For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.


This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).


Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.

jeffersonmarketgarden-orgToday, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.

Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?

[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]

Edgar Allan Poe’s haunted walks on High Bridge

October 7, 2016

Like so many other New Yorkers, Edgar Allan Poe was known to take long, contemplative walks.


After he moved from a farmhouse in today’s Upper West Side to a wooden cottage in rural Fordham (below), Poe regularly journeyed across the High Bridge, opened in 1848, two and a half miles from his home.

A graceful feat of engineering, the High Bridge carried fresh Croton Aqueduct water from Westchester to Manhattan.

poecottage“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham a walk to the High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations,” wrote Sarah Helen Whitman, a literary contemporary who Poe tried and failed to court.

The dramatic views of the Harlem River and the rocky shores must have suited Poe’s mood. After all, his life was in free fall.

His wife, Virginia Clemm, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. And though he would write some of his best work during his Fordham years, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s literary career was falling apart.

He was broke, he drank a lot, and his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.

poehighbridge1900nypl“In the last melancholy years of his life—’the lonesome latter years’—Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night; often pacing the then solitary pathways for hours without meeting a human being,” continued Whitman.

The 1930 lithograph by B.J. Rosenmeyer (top) captures Poe crossing the High Bridge.

There’s some contention that the dates and image don’t line up. The lithograph depicts a winter scene; Poe wasn’t in New York much during the winter of 1848-1849, the last winter of his life, according to this High Bridge website.

poehighbridgetodayAlso, the pedestrian span of the bridge hadn’t been built until 1864, the site explains. (Above, High Bridge around 1900.)

On the other hand, another witness decades after Poe’s death gave a colorful and distressing chronicle of his High Bridge walks.

“With a faded old army cloak over his shoulders, a relic of his old West Point life, he was a familiar object to the staid villagers as he went loitering by through the lanes and over the fields,” a former Fordham acquaintance of Poe’s told a New York Times writer in 1885.

“His favorite route was the aqueduct road, leading over the High Bridge.”

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: NYPL]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.


“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”


New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)


New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

Remnants of four obsolete Brooklyn street names

October 3, 2016

In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman noted the “pull-down-and-build-over-again” spirit of his hometown, which was beginning its transformation from a collection of towns and villages to a united urban city.


Part of that transformation meant renaming older streets—to commemorate contemporary heroes, for example, or fix confusing street names that go back to when each individual town or village had its own street grid.

Some of these renamed and obsolete street names still remain carved into the corners of old tenements. Take this one above, marking Macomb Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.


Macomb Street? Named for an early New York merchant and land surveyor, the road was renamed Garfield Place after the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 “at the requests of residents who said Macomb Street was often confounded with Macon Street,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1883, referring to another street in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Then there’s this engraved sign, noting Third Street and North Sixth Street in Williamsburg. My hunch is that as Williamsburg developed and grew, having two number streets intersect was probably confusing.


The solution: rename Third Street Berry Street (after the first mayor of Williamsburg during its tenure as its own city), which it remains today.

Back up to Greenpoint again, Franklin Street used to intersect with Madison Street. What happened to Madison? It was rechristened Oak Street—perhaps because there already was another Madison Street in Bedford Stuyvesant.


That might also be the case with this tenement corner carving, putting us at State Street and Powers Street in Boerum Hill. Powers Street is now Third Avenue, a change likely necessitated to avoid getting mixed up with Powers Street in Williamsburg.

[A big thanks to Ephemeral reader Force Tube Avenue for sending in these photos of old Brooklyn street corners!]

The kindest landlord Greenwich Village ever had

September 30, 2016

strunskywestthirdsignNew York has never been known for its patient and understanding landlords. But the back pages of the city’s history are filled with exceptions, like Albert “Papa” Strunsky.

Strunsky (below) was a portly Russian immigrant who got his start in Greenwich Village selling wine to restaurants before leasing several walkup buildings between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets south of Washington Square.

albertstrunskygvny-comIn the years following World War I, as Bohemia flourished in the Village, Strunsky rented flats to many struggling artists and writers.

And when they had trouble coughing up the rent, he didn’t send an eviction notice.

“Strunsky was a character,” recalled one former tenant, Henrietta Stoner, in an undated interview with the Greenwich Village Gazette.

“But he was the most wonderful man in the world. If you could not pay the rent, he’d settle for a radio, for a painting if you were an artist and he liked your work.”

A reporter writing about the Village in a New York newspaper in 1936 had this to say about broke Villagers’ favorite landlord: “A rent collecting scene with Papa Strunsky is a memorable event. . . . First there is the initial ultimatum: ‘Either pay or get out.'”


“Then, the letdown when Papa asks, ‘Have you finished that book or that painting yet?’ Be the answer negative, it will not be necessary to pack up. Papa Strunsky will stake his tenant to another month—and frequently, to another year.”

Strunsky wasn’t just a Village landlord—he lived in the neighborhood himself at 44 Washington Square South near Sullivan Street (the block above, in 1922; West Third Street west of Sullivan Street today, below).


His wife ran a pay-as-you-wish cafeteria on West Eighth Street, and his children traveled in artistic circles; one married Ira Gershwin.

But for all his generosity, perhaps his heart was a little too big. Because Strunsky wasn’t able to collect all of the money he was owed, the company he leased his buildings from took them back, leaving him struggling.

He died at 75 in 1942, apparently broke but beloved by former tenants.

strunskynytobituary1942Of his landlord days, the New York Times wrote in his obituary: “Mr. Strunsky shunned reporters in those days, for as he explained, each public mention of his name and charities brought fresh waves of hopeful squatters to his door.”

“But ‘they,’ as he described the artists, and ‘they,’ living rent free until his patience was exhausted, would dedicate their pictures, symphonies, and statues to him but pay no money.”

[Second image:; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth image: New York Times]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.


One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

Bathing beauties of the 1896 Sunday Journal

August 26, 2016

Is this siren showing off at a high-end resort like Long Branch or enjoying the surf at lowbrow pleasure paradise Coney Island?


Both destinations are probably covered in the William Randolph Hearst-owned Sunday Journal. Hmm, could the whole summer resort focus be an excuse to run images of women in bathing costumes?

Look at the writers: Stephen Crane!

[Image: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The sad fate of these Lafayette Street columns

August 1, 2016

You could call it one of New York’s first luxury developments: a nine-building stretch of magnificent marble row houses on the recently laid out cobblestone cul-de-sac of Lafayette Place.


The new, two-block street was uptown in the late 1820s, when construction, spearheaded by John Jacob Astor, began. Land that had recently been forests and fields was about to become the young city’s most fashionable quarter.

Sing Sing inmates quarried the white marble used to build what would be named LaGrange Terrace (above, in 1895), after the name of the Marquis de Lafayette’s estate in France.


(Lafayette fever was running high in the city; the Revolutionary War hero had just made a rock star-like return visit to the grateful metropolis in 1825).

Completed in 1833 (above) with amenities like running water, central heating, and bathrooms, LaGrange Terrace was occupied by Delanos, Vanderbilts, and Gardiners, as well as short-term residents Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving.


“Society liked the seclusion of the street, and houses were soon built on every side of the terrace,” wrote the New-York Tribune in 1902.

But fashions change, and Manhattan was on a steady march northward. By the end of the 19th century, the marble row—sandwiched in the light industry district on renamed Lafayette Street—was faded and forlorn.


After they were acquired by department store magnate John Wanamaker (whose store was on 9th Street), five of the buildings had a date with the wrecking ball in 1902. The columns were reportedly salvaged by a builder who intended to use them in another project.

In the ensuing years, LaGrange Terrace, known also as Colonnade Row, has had its ups and downs. A mansard roof was added, and the grimy columns began disintegrating. But earning landmark status gave the row historic recognition.


And what about the marble columns bulldozed a century ago?

They turned up decades later outside a boys’ school in Morristown, New Jersey—on property that was once the estate of the builder who salvaged them.

[Top photo: MCNY; second and third images: NYPL; fifth photo: Wikipedia]

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.


Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.


Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.


St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]