Archive for the ‘Poets and writers’ Category

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.

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“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.”

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.'”

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“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).

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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: gvny.com; 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

A sign of a 1920s speakeasy on Sixth Avenue

July 18, 2016

When these walkup buildings on Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street went up in the 1830s, they may have looked more alike.

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Over time, however, things change: facades are altered, paint goes up, and cornices are chopped (or crumble) down.

SpeakeasytalesofthejazzageBut the altered facade at number 359, the red building on the right, is drastic: the three second-story windows have been bricked in and painted over.

What did the proprietors of 359 Sixth Avenue have to hide? Booze.

This was the secret second floor (or half floor, according to one account) speakeasy called the Red Head, one of probably hundreds that popped up in Village basements and back rooms after Prohibition.

A second wooden door (below) past the front door led to the speakeasy, reported Westviewnews.org.

Launched in 1922 by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns as a way to pay their college tuition, the Red Head disguised itself as a tea house and served alcohol in teacups, according to Savoring Gotham: a Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Speakeasyredheaddoor“The Red Head became a favorite drinking spot for the ‘flaming youth’ made famous that year by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the club’s regulars, in his book of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age,” wrote Donald L. Miller in Supreme  City.

Kriendler and Berns kept their speak in business thanks to Tammany Hall protection money and a constant flow of college kids and celebrities like Dorothy Parker.

No party lasts forever. In 1925, Kriendler and Berns shut down the Red Head and opened a speakeasy called the Fronton at 88 Washington Place.

They then moved up to Midtown, settling in at 21 West 52nd Street. After Repeal it became the 21 Club, where drinks still flow to this day.

The globe and quill in the Meatpacking District

July 14, 2016

Who would build the headquarters of a publishing company on far West 13th Street at the turn of the century—amid the warehouses and cold storage spaces of what was then the center of New York’s produce, meat, and dairy markets?

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Peter Collier did. Collier was the founder of popular Collier’s magazine, which covered “fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humor, and news” and ran some noteworthy authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and groundbreaking muckraking pieces too.

Collierscover1921Collier put his company offices and printing plant (he published books too) in this neoclassical building at 416-424 West 13th Street, constructed from 1901 to 1902.

West 13th Street here was Astor-owned land, and Collier’s son was married to an Astor daughter.

In the 1920s, 700 people worked in the company headquarters (including e.e. cummings), cranking out thousands of books and periodicals a day.

But the Collier company decamped from the building in 1929. It did turns as a General Electric warehouse, girdle factory, and moving company home base.

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More than a century later, in the revived and revamped Meatpacking District, Collier’s stately and inspiring globe logo, flanked by a quill pen and fountain pen and topped by a torch, represent a very different West 13th Street.

[Top image: Glassdoor.com]

An Avenue A artists enclave called Paradise Alley

June 27, 2016

Paradisealleycourtyard2016Perhaps the name Paradise Alley was meant as a joke.

This little East Village enclave consisted of several small tenement buildings sharing a courtyard on the hard-luck corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street.

Or maybe Paradise Alley was a truly heavenly place to live and work, especially for the painters and writers who made it an unofficial arts colony through the 1960s.

However it ended up with its illustrious name, Paradise Alley has had a long history.

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Built in the 1860s, the walk-up buildings here were home to the waves of German, Irish, and then Italian immigrants who settled in a neighborhood known by turns as Mackerelville, Kleindeutschland, and the northern end of the Lower East Side.

ParadisealleybrooklyneagleThe Paradise Alley moniker supposedly came in the 1920s. By then, many artists and writers had moved in, renting rooms along with regular neighborhood folks for $17 to $25 per month.

That wasn’t small change for poor New Yorkers during the Depression. In January 1933, Paradise Alley residents went on a rent strike, insisting on a 25 percent reduction in rent and the mysterious demand of “proper sanitation facilities.”

PardisealleysubterraneanscoverThe strike led to a wild anti-landlord and anti-police riot after the landlord evicted several tenants, all artists or writers, and left their belongings on the sidewalk.

Paradise Alley’s next claim to fame came thanks to Jack Kerouac, who fell in love with Beat poet Alene Lee, a Paradise Alley tenant in the 1950s.

Kerouac wrote a thinly veiled description of the enclave (and moved it to San Francisco) in his 1958 novel The Subterraneans.

Paradise Alley was “a big 20-family tenement of bay windows . . . the wash hung out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers . . . yelling from stepladders, smells, cats meowing, Mexicans, the music of all the radios . . .” as Kerouac described it.

In the 1960s, Paradise Alley was renovated; 40 families were relocated and rents raised to $80-$135 a month.

Paradisealleyrenovatednyt1960sThe builder hoped it would be a Patchin Place of the East Village. He put in a fountain, gas-lit lamps, and brickface facades. Morgan Freeman and composer David Amram were tenants.

The end came in a 1985 fire. Today, the corner hosts a senior living complex.

Could the 19th century tenement on the other side of the complex’s gate (top photo) be a last fragment of this lost East Village enclave?

Bedford+Bowery has a more in-depth piece from 2013 on Paradise Alley (with terrific photos).

[Second image: Avenue A looking north from 11th Street in 1933, NYC Municipal Archives; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1933; fifth image: a renovated Paradise Alley in 1962, New York Times]