Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view

June 14, 2021

On a dreary stretch of Third Avenue at 121st Street in East Harlem is a block-long, two-story building emptied of tenants, waiting for the wrecking ball.

But hiding behind a metal frame on the exterior is a throwback to a very different New York: the faded imprint of a Woolworth’s sign against that iconic red backdrop: “F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Before Amazon, before Target, and before Walgreens there was Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime store chain that sold everything from underwear to goldfish to school supplies to sewing patterns throughout the 20th century.

Some had lunch counters, popular places to grab a cheap bite before the era of fast food and Starbucks. (Those lunch counters often attracted the down and out and lonely, as I recall from many, many trips to a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s as a kid.)

Woolworth had a strong presence in New York City. In Manhattan alone Woolworth’s occupied storefronts on Eighth Street, both ends of 14th Street, and all the major cross streets up to 125th Street.

Woolworth’s was once a regular shopping stop for all kinds of necessities; in New York City, they even played a role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet in it’s final decades, the store came off as shabby and doddering.

When the store at 2226 Third Avenue was built and then closed is something of a mystery. The last Woolworth’s in the US shut its doors in 1997.

I have a feeling this Woolworth’s disappeared long before that—though it existed in the 1930s, as the NYPL photo shows above, and it made it into the 1940 NYC tax photo, too.

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

Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover?

April 27, 2020

Manhattan still has several manhole covers that mark the Croton Aqueduct, the 1842 engineering masterpiece that fed fresh water to the 1840s metropolis from a series of gravity-powered pipes and city receiving reservoirs.

Dated 1862, this one hiding in plain sight on the grimy corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street is thought to be the oldest in the city. It’s might also be the most southerly one, since the Croton manhole cover once on Jersey Street in Noho has disappeared.

But unless it was removed recently (and that’s certainly possible), an almost identical cover, also dated 1862, lies underfoot in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, at First Avenue and 112th Streets.

In the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, it’s a fitting time to take a moment and celebrate what the Croton Aqueduct did for New York City: it brought clean drinking water to an unsanitary city where fresh water was hard to find.

Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted.

A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem

April 20, 2020

Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many residents were infected.

Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in “TB Harlem,” from 1940.

“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its collection.

Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by removing a rib.

“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental,” continues the NMWA. “While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.”

Knitting for soldiers in an upper Manhattan park

December 16, 2019

When Ashcan painter George Luks completed this painting of a group of women knitting in Highbridge Park on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River, he gave it the one-word title “Knitting.”

But it was 1918, and amid the war effort, “critics naturally assumed that the scarves and gloves were being made for soldiers,” notes terraamericanart.org. Hence the amended title, “Knitting for the Soldiers.”

It’s an unusual piece of art from Luks, who tended to focus on the gritty realism of the city’s poorer pockets. A move from Greenwich Village to Upper Manhattan, however, changed his focus.

“While taking advantage of the expressive possibilities of paint, Luks suggested details of costume and gesture with a sharp reporter’s eye: the women’s garments are simple, yet fashionable enough to mark them as comfortably middle-class. Varying in age from young to elderly, they work in silent camaraderie,” states terraamericanart.org.

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.”

Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

November 25, 2019

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via nyhistory.org stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]

A relic of the 1931 opening of a New York bridge

October 7, 2019

More than 50,000 cars crossed the George Washington Bridge on its opening day October 25, 1931, an event filled with “carnival spirit,” as The New York Times described it in an article the next day.

“During the day elderly men with canes wandered slowly along the walks at the sides, and small boys skated more rapidly than courtesy and the crowd seemed to suggest,” the Times reported.

“There were women with babies and some with carriages as well. There were nautical souls strolling with cameras and opera glasses. Far below were speed boats skipping about like bugs, and high overhead airplanes looked down on the latest massive achievement of man.”

The Times noted souvenir sellers hawking pictures of the first president—but no mention of pins like this one, with a ribbon that reads, “Opening of George Washington Bridge” and the date in gold.

Someone came to the opening ceremony for the GW Bridge that day and left with this pin, then left it behind…to be found once again via a garage sale or flea market by someone who has never known a New York without this iconic Hudson River span.

[Top photo: AP; third image: NYT October 26, 1931]

The cross streets carved into tenement corners

August 26, 2019

It’s fun spotting these: the names of cross streets embossed or engraved on the corners of tenement buildings. From the Lower East Side to Harlem, many still exist.

But what’s their purpose, actually?

Perhaps city officials didn’t care enough about poor neighborhoods to post official street signs on each corner, so having the cross streets on a building helped strangers know where they were.

Or maybe these addresses were intended to be seen by elevated train riders, who had a window-seat view of the second story of every building on the avenue.

They could also exist just to give drab, cookie-cutter tenements a little pizzaz. In any event, more of these street addresses in Manhattan and Brooklyn can be found here.

The rural feel of an 1851 Harlem parish house

June 24, 2019

West 126th Street, in today’s Harlem, is an otherwise ordinary urban street of tenements and former factory buildings.

But cross Amsterdam Avenue, and you’ll find a simple wood parish house built in 1851 set back behind a lush front yard and shaded by tall trees.

Stop here for a moment, and you’ll be instantly transported back to mid-19th century Upper Manhattan.

The clapboard building is the former parsonage for St. Mary’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

Founded in 1823 when West 126th Street was called Lawrence Street, St. Mary’s served the small village of Manhattanville.

Manhattanville itself (below, a depiction of the road to Manhattanville in 1865) has a interesting history.

Laid out in 1806 with its own street grid 8 miles from the downtown city, this industrial town had about 15 houses the year the church was founded.

The congregation was an outgrowth of the more affluent St. Michael’s Church to the south in Bloomingdale, according to the 1998 Landmarks Preservation  Commission report. (St. Michael’s is still here, on West 99th Street.)

The first St. Mary’s church (at left) was a simple white structure consecrated in 1826.

“Manhattanville’s founding families, many of whom were related by marriage, were the core of St. Mary’s early congregation, which also included the widow and sons of Alexander Hamilton, and Daniel F. Tiemann, mayor of New York in 1858-1860,” states the report.

But most of Manhattanville’s early 19th century residents were poor; they were mainly British and Dutch descendants as well as some African Americans.

This might be why the church became the first in the city to abolish pew rental fees—a normal and accepted practice in New York’s churches at the time.

As Manhattanville grew, so did St. Mary’s. The clapboard parish house was completed in 1851.

In 1908, the original St. Mary’s was replaced by the current church. It was designed by Carrere and Hastings, the architects behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, among other buildings.

Through the 20th century, Manhattanville was subsumed by the larger city. Some vestiges of the old village remain, and the parsonage is the most enchanting example.

St. Mary’s continues to serve the community, an oasis with a rural feel harkening back to a more bucolic Upper Manhattan that’s been lost to urbanization.

[Third image: nycago.org; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: MCNY 193233.173.477]

A mystery studio building in Washington Heights

June 24, 2019

The tan and brown walkup at Broadway and 153rd Street isn’t particularly eye-catching.

But around the corner on the facade is something curious. Carved into a decorative, ribbon-like banner over the entrance are the words “Trinity Studio.”

Trinity would be for Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, the sloping burial ground that borders 153rd Street and stretches all the way across Broadway to Riverside Drive and 155th Street.

Opened by Trinity Church in 1843, this Trinity cemetery is the final resting ground of the city’s famous and infamous, from John Jacob Astor to Eliza Jumel to Ed Koch.

But Trinity Studio (above, in 1910) presents a mystery.

Did the church or burial ground have anything to do with the studio building?

Dedicated work-living spaces for artists popped up around the turn of the century, like this studio building overlooking Bryant Park.

Trinity Studio appears to be independent of the church, and not for artists necessarily but for “refined people” looking for a 2-3 room uptown pad.

An article in the New York Sun in 1910 states that the building “will be erected from designs by Emery Roth as architect at the southeast corner of Broadway and 153rd Street.”

As this ad illustrates, the main draws were the “perpetual north light” and “magnificent view of Hudson and Palisades.”

Today it’s a coop, and 1-2 room studios are a lot pricier than the $35 (a month, I imagine) going rate in 1910.

[Third image: MCNY, 1910: X2011.34.1275; fourth image: New York Herald]