Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

Beauty and humanity in a Third Avenue El film

December 9, 2019

In 1955—before the shutdown of the Third Avenue El between Chatham Square and East 149th Street in the Bronx—a filmmaker named Carson Davidson took his camera up to a lonely platform and into one of the mostly empty trains.

With just weeks to go before the train and this main portion of the elevated would be trucked to the scrapyard, Davidson and a group of actors shot a haunting Impressionist short film.

The El may have been destined for the wrecking ball, yet Davidson’s film brings it alive—the iron spine of a city snaking between the tenements of Lower and Upper Manhattan and then over the Third Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.

The voiceless characters feel familiar, but they’re not cliches. A man sleeps, a couple plays cards. A stumblebum gets on near the Bowery and tries to wring one last drop out of a bottle of liquor. A little girl excitedly takes a seat.

Out the train windows we see the geometrical shadows of the railings on platforms. The camera turns to the train itself, a metal machine screeching and lurching high above sidewalks while a harpsichord plays as a soundtrack.

During the ride Davidson captures a street cleaner, faded ads, puddles on paving stones, the Chrysler Building, laundry lines, the Harlem River, and a tugboat belching smoke as a swing bridge aligns itself so the train can keep going.

The Third Avenue El threads the characters’ stories, as does a coin caught in the floor of the train car. Each character tries and fails to grab it.

Finally at night, a young couple boards. Amid glimpses of a Horn and Hardart Automat sign and a movie marquee, the male half of  the couple picks up and pockets the coin.

A director and artist I know had this to add about Davidson’s Oscar-nominated short:

“Although the filmmaker is fascinated with mechanics and shapes, it is always softened by humanity, the sympathetic characters. It’s literally a day in the life of the El which ends, after all those geometrically composed images, romantically with the lovers getting the coin.”

A relic of a downtown “apartment for rent” sign

December 9, 2019

In a city that practically requires renters to fork over thousands of dollars to a real estate broker just to sign an apartment lease, you don’t see too many “apartment for rent” signs nailed to building entrances.

But “to let” or “to rent” signs used to be a lot more common—like this one, which Ephemeral reader Ellen G. shared with me this week.

The sign was for sale on eBay, and the description says it’s from the 1930s.

It’s certainly pre-1960s, as it has the wonderful old two-letter telephone exchange that was replaced by digits in the 1960s. Drydock is the name of a small street in the East Village near Avenue D and 10th Street, a leftover of what was once the Drydock District. (Oddly, Drydock isn’t anywhere near One Spring Street, which is at Bowery.)

This isn’t the only Zacarro real estate relic. I’m not sure if it’s still visible, but a faded ad for P. Zaccaro’s real estate business used to be up on the side of a building on Delancey Street (above).

Who was P. Zaccaro? He was the father-in-law of former New York City congresswoman and vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

[Thank you Ellen G. for sharing this sign!]

The ghost chimney on an East Midtown building

December 2, 2019

Phantom buildings abound in New York, especially in the contemporary city, with so many structures that were once neighborhood fixtures getting the heave ho in an era of rampant renovation and reconstruction.

This ghost walkup on East 52nd Street and Third Avenue was probably a 19th century tenement home to several families—perhaps all sharing one slender chimney, its outline very creepily five years after the building was torn down and replaced by a Hilton Garden Inn.

If you look at it long enough, you might actually start envisioning puffs of smoke coming out the top.

Veniero’s has the East Village’s best neon sign

November 25, 2019

On dark, chilly fall nights, Veniero’s neon sign glows with warmth and possibilities—of cannoli, tiramisu, pignoli, or any of this pasticceria’s other heavenly cakes, cookies, and Italian pastries tempting hungry customers from the long glass counter.

The shop, on East 11th Street between Second and First Avenues, has a familiar history. In 1885, Antonio Veniero left his Southern Italy hometown and sailed to America.

After working in a candy factory for eight years, he’d saved enough money to open a social club at 342 East 11th Street—then an enclave of Italian immigrants amid a larger neighborhood of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and other newcomers.

“He served homemade candy and roasted espresso,” states the store’s website. “Not too long after, he started baking biscotti. In 1894, Veniero’s was born.”

The current Veniero’s sign might be the most spectacular in the East Village. It’s old-school vertical and horizontal, and it reminds passersby that the place has been serving the neighborhood for an astonishing 125 years.

I have no idea what the original Veniero’s storefront signage looked like. Yet this photo, from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services tax photo collection, offers a peek at the sign circa 1940—not quite the same, but similar enough.

[Second image: Veniero’s in 2013; third image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

What would the city be without street peddlers?

October 28, 2019

What kind of city would New York be if it didn’t have a long tradition as a place for pushcart peddlers and street vendors?

These sidewalk sellers have been setting up shop since the 19th century, particularly in immigrant neighborhoods—where a newcomer could get a toehold in the business world by hawking anything from oysters to pretzels to jewelry to Christmas trees from a cart, wagon, table, or truck.

This “push cart” license was issued in the 1960s by the now-nonexistent “department of markets.” Today, the license is called a general vendor license, not to be confused with the food cart vendor license or street fair vendor license.

More rules to abide by in 2019, but the same dream as 1969.

East 70th Street’s pinkish neon coffee shop sign

October 14, 2019

In this photo, some of the letters look red, others are definitely pink.

No matter what colors the letters are, this gorgeous glowing sign for Neil’s Coffee Shop on 70th Street and Lexington Avenue is proof that New York bars and restaurants still feature the city’s iconic iridescent neon store signage.

Neil’s is an under-the-radar kind of place, opened in 1940. And happily, the inside decor and menu are as old-school New York diner as it gets.

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]

The faded ghost sign for a Ludlow Street grocery

September 23, 2019

55 Ludlow Street blends right into the Lower East Side streetscape.

It’s a six-story building between Hester and Grand that probably started out as a brick tenement in the late 19th or early 20th century before getting an upgrade that smoothed out the facade and front windows.

Photos over the past few years show the first floor commercial space covered in graffiti, with no apparent occupant in place.

But one turn-of-the-century feature remains: the very faded phantom outline of a sign, “wholesale grocers,” above the first-floor entrance.

So who were these wholesale grocers, and when did they run their business?

It could have been the sign for Bernstein & Wolfson, a wholesale grocery founded by Morris H. Bernstein, 44, described in his 1916 New York Times obituary as “the mayor of the East Side” and head of one of the largest groceries in the area.

“He lived at [illegible] Orchard Street, and his death is said to be hastened by his active preparations for the celebration of his 20th year as a grocer on the East Side, which was to have taken place in Webster Hall on March 25,” wrote the Times.

A grocer’s directory from 1917 continued to categorize Bernstein as the “strictly wholesale” grocer at 55 Ludlow Street.

Bernstein & Wolfson didn’t appear to last much longer. By 1919, the New York Herald reported that the entire building at 55 Ludlow Street was leased to a candy company.

Here it is in a 1940 Department of Records tax photo…looking not far off from the way it looks today. Special thanks to Robert G. for spotting this ghost sign and taking the photos!

[Fourth photo: NYC Department of Records Tax Photo]

The man behind a manhole cover on 78th Street

September 16, 2019

Just when you think you’ve seen every old-school manhole cover that still remains in New York, you discover another you’ve never noticed before—with a new name embossed on it and a different design.

This lid, made by M. Dattner, is a new one for me—spotted on East 78th Street between First and Second Avenues.

That’s less than five blocks from where Dattner had his hardware store at 1585 First Avenue, which for a time was also his home, according to Walter Grutchfield’s wonderful website.

Who was Dattner? According to Grutchfield, Moritz “Morris” Dattner immigrated from Austria in 1903. He went into business with a brother who had a hardware company at 1210-1212 First Avenue, then began his own concern.

He registered for the World War I and World War II drafts, and by the 1940s he had moved to Brooklyn. He died in 1963, and I like to think that this manhole cover is something of a memorial.

More manhole covers from across the city can be found here.

A last remnant of the Duane Street shoe district

September 16, 2019

New York is a necropolis of defunct businesses. But every so often an old sign from one of these dead and gone businesses reappears like a ghost, reminding us that at another time in another New York, they were part of the cityscape.

One of these long-gone stores recently revealed itself at 114 Chambers Street in Tribeca. “Craig’s Shoes” it reads, looking strangely British and very old-fashioned.

Tribeca Citizen also noticed the back-in-view sign earlier this summer.

Reader comments explain that Craig’s had been in business since 1949, ending its run in 2006 at a second store site on 132 Chambers Street, which was to be demolished and replaced by the AKA Tribeca Hotel.

Interestingly, Craig’s wasn’t just a one-off shoe store in a neighborhood once known for its light industry and food provisions businesses.

This pocket in Tribeca centered around Duane Street was once the center of the “shoe-jobbing district,” as the area is nicknamed in the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City via Tribeca Citizen.

A New York Times article from 1920 calls it the “Duane Street shoe district,” while other articles go with the “downtown shoe district.”

(At left, 114 Chambers Street in 1940; a shoe icon hangs off the side of the building next door.)

The shoe district appears to have taken off in the late 19th century, and by the 1920s several shoe manufacturers had factories here.

Tribeca wouldn’t be coined until the 1970s, of course, and by that time, the shoe manufacturers and side businesses catering to it were all but gone.

Another curious remnant of the shoe district does still exist, at least it did a decade ago.

It’s this beautiful street clock affixed to 145 Duane Street, former home of the Nathaniel Fisher Company—wholesale shoe sellers described as one of “the oldest shoe firms in America,” according to an 1894 New York Times article.

[Third image: Boot and Shoe Recorder, 1921; fourth image: New York City Department of Records]