Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]

The steam pipe repair crew fixing New York at night

June 14, 2021

Born in New York City in 1901, painter Dines Carlsen made a name for himself as a still life and landscape painter. Here he made nighttime New York City his landscape, focusing on the men called out to do the rough work of fixing steam pipes while most of the city sleeps.

“Steam Pipe Repair Crew” is undated, and I’m not sure where it’s set. Though the scene takes place likely in the first half of the 20th century (based on the clothes and truck), it depicts a situation that occurs multiple times every night, night after night, somewhere in New York—people doing their jobs out of sight under darkness, when most of us are unaware.

[Cavalier Galleries]

The Brooklyn Bridge is celebrating its birthday

May 17, 2021

Work began in 1870 and was finally completed 13 years later (at a cost of $15 million and with more than 20 worker deaths). Now, the Brooklyn Bridge is marking its 138th birthday on May 24.

What better way to honor an icon than with a brilliant lithograph produced by a Pearl Street publisher depicting the fireworks, ship parade, and procession of 150,000 pedestrians walking across this engineering marvel for the first time on May 24, 1883? After politicians, including President Chester A. Arthur, gave speeches, the bridge was opened to the public just before midnight.

“From high water to roadway 120 ft—from high water to centre of span 135 ft—from roadway to top 158 ft—width of Bridge 85 ft—with tracks for steam cars, roadway for carriages, and walks for foot passengers, and an elevated promenade commanding a view of extraordinary beauty and extant,” the caption reads.

[Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Fierce tigers and eagles on a 58th Street co-op

January 4, 2021

Midtown East is the land of elegant 1920s-era apartment houses: handsome buildings of 10, 11, maybe 12 stories that usually feature understated brick and limestone facades.

But 339 East 58th Street has something else going on: fierce creatures in cast stone above Medieval columns and decorative Romanesque arches.

Adorning this co-op, built in either 1920 or 1929 depending on the source (I’m betting on 1929), are two eagle figures standing ramrod straight like soldiers high above the canopied entrance.

Between these avian sentries are two tiger heads emerging from the brickwork just beneath the second floor windows.

I couldn’t find much information about the building and the backstory of the figures as well as the columns and arches surrounding the entrance.

Perhaps there’s no more significance than an architect tasked with creating yet another standard New York City apartment building while dreaming of Medieval Europe’s soaring cathedrals and castles and taking inspiration from illuminated manuscript pages.

A food vendor’s Christmas on 14th Street in 1904

December 14, 2020

Ashcan school painter Everett Shinn gravitated toward New York’s underdogs: the lonely, the lost, the dreamers, and those who appear to be battered by life’s elements.

This food vendor pushing his flimsy wood cart during the holiday season appears to fall into the latter category. Painted in 1904, “Fourteenth Street at Christmas Time” gives us a blustery, snowy street crowded with Christmas tree buyers and other shoppers beside the lights from store window displays.

Our vendor, however, stands away from everyone, his body crouched to avoid the frightful weather. His cart glows with the warmth of hot food cooking…but he has no buyers.

A Waverly Place smoke store sign returns to view

September 28, 2020

Oren’s Daily Roast departed from 28 (or 31, depending on the source) Waverly Place before 2019, so we can’t blame the closure of this coffee place across from Washington Square Park on Covid.

But the fact that a new occupant for the ground-floor space in this lovely 1930 apartment building hasn’t moved in yet might be coronavirus-related. (It’s not the best time to open a business, unfortunately.)

In the meantime, the faded lettering of a previous tenant’s sign has come back into view—the Waverly Smoke Shop.

The name has an old New York ring to it; I can imagine cigar store Native American statues guarding the door. (Alas, I don’t see any in this 1940 tax photo of the corner of the building.)

But the shop existed until at least 1991, when the New York Daily News noted that the store had become popular because it carried the NYU tank top Ellen Barkin’s character wore in the movie Switch.

Now, if only I could make out the faded outline of the store sign next door. It looks like “Eing—” and then I just can’t figure out the letters.

[Third image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

What the White Horse Tavern meant in the 1950s

June 22, 2020

The rough edges are long gone from the White Horse Tavern, the corner bar at Hudson and West 11th Streets that’s been serving drinks (not always under that name) since 1880.

Originally this dark, old school bar (above, in 1961) catered to longshoremen and locals. Today, it’s spiffed up for a sidewalk cafe kind of crowd.

But for a moment in time in the 1950s, this saloon with the white horse heads in the windows became a place for writers.

These writers, mostly young men, gathered in the wood-paneled back room to talk books, culture, and politics with others from across the political spectrum.

The White Horse’s postwar literary crowd were drawn to Dylan Thomas (right), the Welsh poet who became a regular, reportedly because it reminded him of the bars in Wales.

It was also where he had his last drinks, having collapsed on the sidewalk after downing 18 shots of whiskey on November 3, 1953. Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital three days later.

His death enhanced the White Horse’s rep (above in 1940), and young writers made the place their own, according to Dan Wakefield, at the time a 23-year-old freelance writer living on Jones Street.

“We regulars in the back room thought of ourselves as underdogs and rebels in Eisenhower’s America,” recalled Wakefield in his 1992 memoir, New York in the 1950s.

“Most often when I went to the White Horse I was waved to a table by Mike Harrington, the author and activist who served as the informal host of an ongoing seminar on culture and politics, dispensing information and opinion interspersed with great anecdotes about left-wing labor leaders and colorful factional fights of political splinter groups I could never keep straight….”

The writers of the White Horse weren’t just left-wing. “Adding to the social life and political repartee in the back room of the Horse were fresh young righties,” noted Wakefield, who wrote that they “turned out to be perfectly pleasant, witty, intelligent people, and we lefty liberals and right-wing conservatives found we had more common ground of conversation and interest with one another” then with those who wee apolitical.

It’s hard to imagine in our polarized social media era, but people really used to get together in person at bars and engage in free-ranging conversations about books, politics, and culture.

Art D’Lugoff, who opened the Village Gate nightclub, recalled in Wakefield’s book: “I used to make the rounds of the bars—Julius’s for those fat hamburgers on toast, then the San Remo, the Kettle of Fish, and the White Horse. Booze was a social thing. The bar scene wasn’t just to get drunk. It was like the public square in a town or a sidewalk cafe in Paris—comradely meeting and talking.”

At the White Horse, Wakefield mixed with Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, and James Baldwin (above in 1955), who lived on Horatio Street and was often targeted by the working-class Irish and Italians in the neighborhood.

Baldwin wasn’t the only one, Wakefield wrote, explaining that local Villagers “regarded all bohemians as suspicious interlopers. The hostility toward all nonconformists was heightened during the McCarthy fervor of the fifties, when mostly Irish kids from the surrounding area made raids on the Horse, swinging fists and chairs, calling the regulars ‘Commies and faggots.'”

The White Horse (above in 1975) was something of a neighborhood respite, and the bar’s literary reputation continued even after Wakefield left New York City in 1962.

At some point decades later, the vibe changed. These days, under new ownership, the White Horse (above, 12 years ago) is more neighborhood pub than literary hangout. But for a short time in postwar Greenwich Village, a crowd of young writers mingled with one another and volleyed ideas and opinions around that back room with passion, energy, and excitement.

[Top image: LOC; second image: Bunny Adler; third image: Danwakefield.com; fourth image: Carl Van Vechten; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.613]

The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

June 22, 2020

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

How yellow fever rebranded a Brooklyn village

April 27, 2020

Epidemics have shaped the growth and geography of New York. And one 19th century epidemic changed a neighborhood’s name, too.

That’s what happened with the Brooklyn enclave formerly known as Yellow Hook. This farming village overlooking New York Bay was originally part of the town of New Utrecht. It was located south of Red Hook, that other hook-shaped piece of land jutting into the water.

Yellow Hook was named by 17th century Dutch settlers for the “peculiar yellowish tint of the land,” according to a 1930 article in the Brooklyn Times Union.

But the name became something of a problem two centuries later, when outbreaks of yellow fever hit Brooklyn in the decade before the Civil War.

The disease was possibly carried to Brooklyn shores by the ships quarantined at Staten Island, according to Mrs. Otto Heinigke, a lifelong resident who was interviewed by the Times Union in 1929 and remembers the epidemic and the “dying shore-dwellers.”

Hundreds of people from Yellow Hook and neighboring Fort Hamilton perished, she said. After the outbreak died down, the “leading men” met at the Yellow Hook schoolhouse, which stood at today’s Third Avenue and 73rd Street, according to the newspaper.

A name change, they felt, would get rid of the negative associations Yellow Hook could have with the deadly, dreaded disease.

The group liked the name Port Lafayette, explained  Mrs. Heinigke, who was described by the Times Union as an “alert little lady” descended from a prominent local family and still living in a gas-lit mansion.

Mrs. Heinigke’s father was the one who came up with the official new name: Bay Ridge. “And so it was that when my father suggested the name ‘Bay Ridge,’ because the section overlooked the bay from a wooded ridge, they all seized upon it at once,”  she explained. “That is how the section got its name.”

As far as I know, the only remnants of the Yellow Hook name in today’s Bay Ridge is a restaurant called the Yellow Hook Grille. And I also heard that the local library has a historical marker explaining the abrupt name change.

[Top image: NYPL Map of the Battle of Brooklyn, 1776; second and third images: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 58.84.2; fifth image: Brooklyn Times Union, 1929]

The red fire alarm relics on New York streets

April 29, 2019

They used to sit on so many city street corners, these red cylinder-like posts with an inside compartment for calling the fire department. In a pre-iPhone era, this was how New Yorkers let the FDNY know they were needed to put out a fire.

Over the years, the style has changed—but I’m specifically talking about these torch-topped beauties, more pale pink in color, with early 20th century ornamentation on what’s basically a piece of street furniture.

I’m not sure how many are still on city curbs. I spotted this one at First Avenue and 58th Street, and it felt like a relic from another era, defaced with stickers and graffiti.

As of a few years ago, approximately 15,000 street fire alarms of all kinds remained on city streets, reported Crain’s New York Business in 2017.

“The boxes were used 11,440 times to call the Fire Department last year,” wrote Crain’s. “That is less than once per box, on average.”

“Only 13% of those calls were for actual emergencies, and less than 1.5%, or 167, were about fires, including just 10 for serious structural fires.”

No surprise, the city would like to get rid of them—and both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations failed to do so, after an organization that advocated for the deaf sued the city to keep the alarms.

They won’t last forever, felled by either city administrators or new construction.

Take a moment to admire their artistry, and that these once-ubiquitous artifacts served a noble purpose.