Archive for the ‘SoHo’ Category

A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903

May 22, 2017

New York has had its share of gruesome murders. But this case, kicked off early one morning in April 1903 after a scrub woman discovered a man’s body, was especially disturbing.

The corpse—riddled with 18 stab wounds on the neck and a clean cut across the throat—was found stuffed in a wooden sugar barrel (below) that had been left on East 11th Street near Avenue D.

“He was evidently a foreigner—a Greek or Armenian or Italian, and about 35 years old,” stated the New York Times the next day.

The Times article noted the dead man’s manicured nails and “good garments,” indicating that he was probably fairly prosperous.

It didn’t take long for the police to conclude this was likely a mafia hit.

Detectives went door to door in the “Italian Quarter,” as the Times called the Little Italy neighborhood centered below East Houston Street, asking people to visit a station house and try to identify the man’s face (below). No one could.

Even without an identity, police made quick progress on the case.

Three Secret Service agents in New York City who were surveilling a counterfeiting ring swore they saw the dead man in a butcher’s shop on Stanton Street the night before the barrel was found.

Police arrested eight men who had also been in the butcher’s shop with the man. All were Sicilians armed with revolvers and daggers and suspected counterfeiters, the Times wrote in a second article.

The leader of the counterfeiting group was Giuseppe Morello, an early gangster who used Black Hand extortion to terrorize Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

The sugar barrel itself helped cops figure out where the murder was committed. The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street (as it is today, right; in 1903, below).

Morello—known as the “Clutch Hand” for his deformed right hand with only one finger (below)—lived in the tenement above the shop.

While the arrested men were held at Jefferson Market courthouse, the dead man was ID’d, thanks to detective work by Joseph Petrosino, one of the few Italian Americans on the NYPD at the time and an early investigator of Black Hand extortion techniques and the Mafia.

Benedetto Mondania was the man in the barrel. Why he was murdered so brutally wasn’t entirely clear.

“Some say he was a member of the [Morello] gang who wanted out of his lifetime membership, while others say he was the closest relative of a gang member suspected of turning informer,” wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the city went about charging some of the men with murder and preparing for a trial, which proved to be difficult considering the power the arrested men had in Italian neighborhoods.

“There was a forced collection across New York’s Italian communities to pay for the gang’s defense and bail costs,” according to gangrule.com. “Most of the people subpoenaed to be on the jury began to make excuses when they learned of the nature of the trial.”

In the end, the case fell apart because the district attorney’s office didn’t think there was enough evidence or willing witnesses to win a conviction.

It wasn’t the last New York heard from Morello. He was convicted of counterfeiting in 1909 and got 20 years in prison—then was killed in a mafia crime war in 1930.

His crime gang (which evolved into the Genovese family) pioneered the barrel murder style of execution, and Mondania certainly wouldn’t be the last dead man found stuffed into one on New York’s streets.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the Gilded Age city’s most notorious murders.

[Second and third images: the Evening World; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: the Evening World]

A piece of pizza history inside a Nolita restaurant

April 3, 2017

Is Lombardi’s really the first pizzeria in the entire United States, as a sign above their storefront at 32 Spring Street claims?

Pizza historians agree: yes.

“Lombardi’s can trace its history back to 1897, when Neapolitan immigrant Genarro Lombardi opened an Italian grocery and provisions shop (below) at 531/2 Spring Street,” states Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Guide to New York City.

Lombardi’s grocery “soon became a popular stop for workers looking for something to take to work for lunch,” says Tom Boyles of Pizza Magazine (yes, this exists).

“Gennaro started selling cheese pies, which were wrapped in paper and tied with a string, and the many workers of Italian descent would take them to the job site.”

In 1905 Lombardi’s applied for a license to sell what was known as pizza back in Italy. We can credit Genarro with introducing America to the glory of coal-oven pies (traditionally wood ovens were used, but coal in New York was easier to come by).

The original Lombardis shut its doors and now dishes out its piping hot cheesy, bubbly, thin-crust goodness down the block.

Hiding in the steaming hot kitchen, where several pizzaiolas shuck uncooked pies into the 800-degree oven, is a relic of Lombardi’s old Little Italy past.

The door to the coal oven is the same door from the original restaurant, with “1905 Lombardi” spelled out in black and white tiles to mark its importance.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: Lombardi’s/firstpizza.com]

This Canal Street sign might be older than SoHo

March 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person in New York in love with the Canal Rubber sign—a can’t-miss yellow, red, and black throwback to Canal Street’s days as an industrial and art supply center.

Canal Rubber has been in business here near Greene Street since 1954.

That year, Ellis Island closed its doors, On the Waterfront hit movie theaters, teen gangs were making news headlines, and the desolate neighborhood not yet known as Soho was called Hell’s Hundred Acres (for all the fires in the cast-iron buildings used for manufacturing).

Or it went by no name at all, because no one wanted to be there.

Elizabeth Street’s old-school meat market signs

March 6, 2017

On trendy Elizabeth Street in the Little Italy rechristened Nolita, two vintage meat store signs harken back to the days when Sicilian-owned businesses lined the streets and butchers did a good trade in live chickens and rabbits.

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Albanese Meats & Poultry looks abandoned, while Moe’s Meat Market across the street has been transformed into gallery space.

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The 1960s and 1970s-esque signs remain, just like this ghostly Italian bakery sign (over an antiques store) farther down the block.

Holdout buildings that escaped the wrecking ball

February 6, 2017

If most developers had their way, contemporary New York’s skyline would probably consist of an unbroken chain of modern monoliths reaching into the sky.

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Luckily, thanks to real estate owners who refused to sell their smaller-scale carriage houses, tenements, and humble 19th century walkups, the cityscape is filled with lovely low-rise reminders of a very different Gotham.

The slender, circa-1893 beauty (above) at 249 West End Avenue beat the wrecking ball because the widow who occupied it refused to sell—even as the four identical homes on either side of hers were demolished in the 1920s, according to Daytonian in Manhattan.

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Streeteasy says that this dollhouse-like carriage house (above) at 407 Park Avenue was built in 1910. The tie shop on the ground floor is dwarfed by its Midtown neighbors.

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This wide, four-story yellow row house was probably the prettiest home on East 57th Street near Sutton Place when it was built. Now, it’s sandwiched between two handsome apartment towers.

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Also on East 57th Street but closer to Midtown are these two very typical 19th century tenements, nestled inside a 1960s white brick apartment house.

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This little red charmer on West Broadway looks like it comes from the 19th century. According to Streeteasy, it was actually built in 1950. That’s okay—it keeps the two modern monsters on either side of it at a nice distance apart.

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.

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But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.

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Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.

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A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.

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I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.

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Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

1930s New York made Sunday brunch very trendy

July 7, 2016

Okay, so New Yorkers didn’t invent the concept of brunch. That honor goes to an English writer in 1895, who argued that this combo meal would encourage good cheer and ease Sunday hangovers.

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But when brunch crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the Depression, city residents with money to spare quickly popularized the meal as a festive way to cap off the weekend.

LombardyhotelMCNY“Brunch did not become a New York City culinary experience until the early 1930s, when chef Werner Haechler offered it in the dining room at the Hotel Lombardy, on East 56th Street in Manhattan,” explains Andrew F. Smith in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Also referred to as the bracer breakfast, the tally-ho lunch, or the hunt lunch, brunch at the Lombardy (see photo above and at left) consisted of a buffet from noon until 4 p.m. and cost $1.25.

What was on the menu at New York’s original brunch haunt? Sauteed veal and kidneys, according to this 1939 New York Times article (headline below) on the new brunch phenomenon.

Brunchnytheadline1939Other restaurants soon began whipping up their own brunch, serving buckwheat cakes with sausages and scrambled eggs with bacon, reported the Times.

Fried fillet of flounder, codfish cakes, chicken hash in cream, and Boston baked beans also made their way onto various menus.

As for the alcohol, New York’s liquor laws meant that brunch-goers who wanted to drink had to arrive after 1 p.m. A whiskey sour was a popular starter, along with a “‘velvet,’ a concoction of port and champagne” stated the Times.

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Sunday (and soon Saturday) brunch became even more popular in the postwar years, when incomes rose and church attendance fell.

Menus changed; bloody marys and mimosas became brunch staples in the 1950s. Brunch is arguably more popular than ever—but one thing has changed, besides the price.

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The Lombardy Hotel, still going strong after close to a century in business, no longer serves it. Countless other restaurants do, of course, like the late, great Yaffa Cafe and a place called Mark’s, as seen in these early-1980s ads.

[Top image: Lombardy Hotel via the New York Post; second image: Lombardy Hotel in 1940s, MCNY; third image: New York Times headline 1939; fourth image: Soho News, March 1982; fifth image: East Village Eye June 1984]

Escaping the day in the Bleecker Street Cinema

May 26, 2016

These days at 144 Bleecker Street, you’ll find a Duane Reade. But quite a different world existed there between 1960 and 1990.

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For 30 years, the two 1832 row houses at this address housed what used to be called a revival theater or art house theater—a place to catch offbeat, experimental, and foreign films before these categories were lumped together as independent cinema.

There was no surround sound or seats with cup holders. Yet the marquee in this 1960s photo looking toward LaGuardia Place hints at the treasures that awaited viewers who ducked inside to escape a dreary New York day.

[Photo: Robert Otter]

Touring Manhattan’s 19th century French Quarter

November 16, 2015

FrenchquarterboulangerieThe Germans had Kleindeutschland in the East Village. The Chinese had Mott Street. Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side.

And from the 1870s to 1890s, approximately 20,000 French immigrants lived and worked in today’s Soho, roughly between Washington Square South and Grand Street and West Broadway and Greene Street.

Bakeries, butchers, cafes, shops, and “innumerable basement restaurants, where dinner, vin compris, may be had for the veriest trifle” occupied the short buildings and tenements of this expat enclave.

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An 1879 article in Scribner’s Monthly took readers on a wildly descriptive sojourn through the Quartier Francais, as the writer calls it.

FrenchquarterrestaurantIt’s not always so flattering. “The Commune has its emissaries and exiles here. There are swarthy faces which have gladdened in mad grimace over the flames of the Hotel de Ville and become the hue of copper bronze under the sun of New Caledonia.”

The writer of the article walked readers past tenements, with young girls fabricating fake flowers inside, to cafes where patrons drink absinthe.

A shop run by an old woman features this sign: “sabots et galoches chaussons de Strasbourg.” A restaurant called the Grand Vatel (right) “has some queer patrons.”

FrenchquartertavernealsacienneOn Greene Street is the Tavene Alsacienne (left), with its “impoverished bar” and worn billiards table, and groups of coatless men absorbed in their games.

Table d’Hote restaurants abound. “In the French Quarter in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, and elsewhere downtown, are several unique and low-priced establishments of this character,” according to King’s Handbook of New York, published in 1892.

Frenchquarter2015Like so many ethnic neighborhoods, this French Quarter didn’t last. By the turn of the century, the city’s small French colony relocated to West Chelsea.

“Twenty-sixth Street west of Sixth Avenue begins to take on the air of the old French Quarter,” reported The Sun in 1894.

“It has several French restaurants, three or four French shoemakers . . . a French grocer or two, and several French bushelling tailors.”

[Top image: NYPL Buttolph Collection of menus; sketches from Scribner’s Monthly, November 1879]

This might be the spookiest house in Soho

October 5, 2015

With its boarded-up parlor windows, wispy lace curtains, and lone light coming from the attic dormer windows, the 1824 Federal-style house at 139 Greene Street certainly gives off a spooky vibe.

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Number 139 has an interesting history as a family home, brothel, factory, and longstanding renovation project. If any house in Soho is haunted by ghosts, this would be the one.

139GreenestreetnightIt all started in 1825, when the home was built by a merchant tailor named Anthony Arnoux, who ran a shop on Broadway and East Fourth Street.

In the 1820s and 1830s, Federal houses were all the rage, and the newly fashionable streets north of Canal Street on the west and east sides of Broadway were lined with similar residences built by the city’s elite.

Arnoux didn’t move in until the 1830s, but he and his five adult children (plus one female servant) occupied what must have been a lovely house at least through 1850, according to census data.

139GreenestreetsignSome of that loveliness remains: the arched dormer windows, red brick, marble stairs, and elegant front entrance.

The similar yet beautifully restored Merchant’s House Museum, across Broadway on East Fourth Street, is a Federal-style house that gives an idea of what the Arnoux house looked like in its prime.

As Greene Street became shabby, the Arnoux family didn’t stick around. By 1860, the neighborhood had become a bustling strip of hotels, shops, and brothels—lots of brothels.

Number 139 became a house of assignation, according to the Gentleman’s Companion, a guide to New York City’s premier red-light district in 1870.

Greene Street “has become a complete sink of iniquity,” the guide states, with 41 brothels luring in men between Canal and Bleecker Streets.

139Greenestreetnyt1867sept139 Greene Street was a third-class “disorderly house” with 7 “inmates” run by Patrick and Amelia Whalen. A fire broke out there in 1867, reported the New York Times.

After the prostitutes left, the millinery trade moved in, followed by light industry.

Perhaps the manufacturer of printers rollers (as advertised on the facade of the cast-iron loft building next door) had something to do with the bashing in of the front wall of the house, as well as the destruction of the marble front stairs.

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In 1968, with Soho’s fortunes rising, an art dealer bought it to use as a storage space, then sold it to an art conservationist—who has been restoring 139 Greene Street ever since . . . and perhaps allowing its 19th century ghosts free reign to haunt the premises.

[Third image: New York Times; fifth image: MCNY; 1970s]