Archive for the ‘SoHo’ Category

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]

Santa’s dashing appearance in an 1868 candy ad

December 18, 2017

He looks a lot like the modern-day Santa Claus: red coat, whiskers, a sled pulled by reindeer. (That pipe, of course, has been erased.)

This 1868 sugar plum advertisement featuring Santa appeared five years after Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast famously reinvented the image of St. Nicholas from the “jolly old elf” in Clement Clark Moore’s poem to a grandfather-like guy in a red suit.

The US Confection Company, headquartered on West Broadway, wisely chose Santa to help shill their sugar plums—and Santa’s image has been used to sell products to children and adults ever since.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 has lots more about how New Yorkers invented the contemporary Christmas: the first public park tree lighting happened in Madison Square Park, electric lights were invented by a New Yorker, and the department stores of Ladies Mile claim the first holiday window displays.

 

Two Prince Street relics on a pre-SoHo building

August 19, 2017

SoHo’s cast-iron commercial buildings have long been repurposed into expensive lofts and boutiques.

But hiding in plain site on the handsome, two-story brick and iron building between Greene Street and Wooster Place are two relics, nods to the neighborhood’s late 19th and 20th century manufacturing past.

These metal signs, advertising the services of a lithographer and engraver as well as an office supplies seller, flank the ends of 120-125 Prince Street, actually two separate buildings constructed in 1892-1893 with a common facade.

“Stationery, Office Supplies, Paper, and Twine” states the one on the right. Twine? To wrap packages in an era before masking tape.

The sign on the left must have advertised the latest technology in printing at the time. Lithographing, engraving . . . manifold books? Special forms?

What they were for we may never know, but these businesses must have been right at home in the area at the time, when this post–Civil War red-light district was the 20th century commercial hub known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.

Imagine the area back then: few residents, no shopping, and all day in nearby buildings machinery churned and whirled and pulsed with the energy that comes from making things.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia, 2012]

All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

July 15, 2017

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]

A Dutch sailor’s photos of the New York of 1979

July 3, 2017

In 1979, Peter van Wijk was a radio officer in the Dutch Merchant Marine. That summer, his ship docked a couple of times in New York Harbor, giving him the opportunity to visit Manhattan and wander the streets.

Like all curious newcomers to New York, he brought a camera along with him, and he took photos of iconic tourist spots like the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and Times Square.

But he also captured the seemingly ordinary street scenes that offer fleeting glimpses into the heart and soul of the late 1970s city: shoppers going in and out of mom and pop stores, musicians and vendors drawing crowds, and taxis navigating traffic-choked streets.

Thirty-eight years later, van Wijk decided to share his previously unseen images, and Ephemeral New York has the wonderful privilege of posting them.

It goes without saying that the Gotham of 1979 was a vastly different place. These days, everyone wants to live in New York; in the 1970s, residents couldn’t get out fast enough. The city’s population dipped an incredible 10 percent from 1970 to 1980, to just over 7 million.

Ed Koch had been elected mayor a year earlier on a law and order platform. The city’s nickname, Fear City (or more ironically, Fun City), was a nod to rising crime and rampant graffiti.

Cuts in city services left garbage on the streets, and shells of buildings sat empty in the South Bronx, East Village, and the Lower East Side, among other neighborhoods.

You wouldn’t know any of this from looking at these photos. The city in this collection of images is animated and colorful, with life and energy.

It’s a New York that feels almost small scale compared to the contemporary city—more a collection of neighborhoods rather than an island of cookie-cutter stores and development.

The gritty, street-smart New York of the 1970s is often hailed as a more authentic version of the city. How true that is has been up for debate lately.

These photos don’t take a side. They’re simply fascinating portals into the past that bring memories back of the city in the late 1970s, before crowded subways, a critical mass of Starbucks and Duane Reade stores, and an army of residents wearing white earbuds as they go about their day.

[All photos:copyright Peter van Wijk]

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.

albanesemeatsign

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

moesmeatmarket

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.

holdoutwestendave

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.

holdoutricci

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.

holdoutsuttonplace

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.

holdouteast57thstreet

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.

holdoutsoho

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.