Archive for the ‘Upper Manhattan’ Category

Futuristic housing never built in 1960s Harlem

September 13, 2012

Nuclear power plants? Landing pads for spaceships? Board game pieces?

Actually, they’re apartment buildings—and if visionary designer (some would say futuristic crackpot) Buckminster Fuller had his way, they may actually have been built in Harlem.

Fuller drew up these plans in 1964: His idea was to build 15 100-story structures spanning the entire width of Upper Manhattan, with each tower capable of housing 45,000 people.

It’s an intriguing idea—unless you had to live there.

But it wasn’t as crazy as Fuller’s 1960 plan, which was to cover Manhattan in a two-mile dome.

The point was to help control the weather and air pollution while keeping energy costs down.

Neither plan, of course, made it past fantasy stage.

Three ways of viewing a Lexington Avenue corner

September 3, 2012

In 1915, when this photo was taken, Lexington Avenue at 116th Street was firmly in the Little Italy of East Harlem, hence the Italian in the signs on the far right above a chemist’s office.

“This section of East Harlem was developed  during the 1880s with the familiar New York brownstone residences and walk-up apartments,” states New York Then and Now, where the photo and the one below appear.

“One block west is the elevated crossing of the New York Central and New Haven Railroads on Park Avenue. The Subway Cafe, on the right-hand corner, anticipates the opening of the Lexington Avenue subway by three years.”

By 1975, the Italian neighborhood is mostly gone; Puerto Rican New Yorkers have moved in. The buildings themselves haven’t changed much—and the Bloomingdale’s ad from 1915 is visible 60 years later.

In 2012, the streetscape still looks similar. The corner building that went from saloon to Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet is now home to a taco shop, a sign of the neighborhood’s Mexican population.

And though the Bloomingdale’s ad on the corner has been painted over, next to it out of view, a second Bloomingdale’s ad is still legible! Here it is from an earlier Ephemeral post.

Where home plate once was at the Polo Grounds

September 3, 2012

The bathtub-shaped stadium known as the Polo Grounds, on Eighth Avenue and 155th Street in Harlem, met the wrecking ball in 1963 (here it is being dismantled at right).

In its place, the city built the Polo Grounds Towers, a public-housing complex with four 30-story red-brick buildings.

Maybe these projects were okay in 1968, but today, they’re as isolated and decrepit as the Polo Grounds were crowded and inspiring.

Inside the complex is one small reminder of the location’s former glory: a very faded plaque affixed to one of the red-brick buildings.

The plaque commemorates the Polo Grounds—home not just to the Giants but also the Yankees in the 1910s and the pre-Shea Stadium Mets in the early 1960s.

It’s supposedly placed at the approximate location of home plate, where greats like Willie Mays scored runs and Bobby Thompson hit his “shot heard round the world” in 1951.

The plaque is rusted and old—a faded bit of New York baseball history, like this secret staircase that once led to the Polo Grounds.

The “Boy Mayor” who cleaned up city politics

August 16, 2012

Sworn in when he was just 34, reformist John Purroy Mitchel became New York’s second-youngest mayor ever in 1914.

His age set him apart from his predecessors—as did his mission: to get rid of the corruption that had infiltrated city politics since Tammany rule in the 1800s.

“While in office Mitchel cut waste, improved accounting practices, and worked to professionalize the city’s civil service by standardizing salaries and work guidelines for municipal employees,” explains Columbia University (Mitchel was part of the class of 1899.)

He also cut police graft and created the first zoning laws, and four years later ran a reelection campaign that endorsed a national draft.

Tammany bosses were determined to beat him in 1917, and he was defeated by Tammany-backed John Hylan.

After losing the election, he enlisted in the Air Service and prepped to fight in World War I. On a training mission in Louisiana in 1918, he fell from his plane and was killed.

[Above: Mitchel throwing out the first pitch at the Polo Grounds in 1916]

Mitchel was memorialized all over the metro area: two flagstaffs in Bryant Park, Mitchel Air Force Base in Long Island, and this plaque at the entrance to the Central Park Reservoir.


When the Straw Hat Riots rocked 1920s New York

August 13, 2012

Senseless riots have always broken out in the city: Astor Place, the Draft Riots, Tompkins Square.

But a riot that started over a silly male fashion rule about not wearing straw hats past September 15? It’s probably the most pointless of all.

It began on September 13, 1922, two days before the end of straw-hat season. Donning straw after this date made you the target of street kids, who would steal your hat and stomp on it.

Eager kids living near Mulberry Bend decided to get a jump on this weird tradition, grabbing hats off factory workers’ heads and smashing them.

Some men fought back, and brawls began by the Manhattan Bridge. Police broke them up, but only temporarily. For the next few nights, mobs of youths across the city roamed the streets, stealing hats and beating victims.

“A favorite practice of the gangsters was to arm themselves with sticks, some with nails at the tip, and compel men wearing straw hats to run a gauntlet,” states The History Box.

“Sometimes the hoodlums would hide in doorways and dash out, 10 or 12 strong, to attack one or two men. Along Christopher Street, on the Lower West Side, the attackers lined up along the surface car tracks and yanked straw hats off the heads of passengers as the cars passed.”

A mob a thousand roamed Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, reported The New York Times, while more gangs came out on the Lower East Side and East Harlem.

Incredibly, no one was killed—though riots broke out again over the next few years that did claim at least one victim.

[Above photo: Men in straw hats on William Street, about a decade before the 1922 riots.]

The city’s kitschy, most colorful store signs

August 6, 2012

Blue, yellow, red, green: these vintage signs, from the 1960s and 1970s and still going strong (if a little worn), explode with color.

Has anyone gone to Canal Rubber, off Greene Street, to see if the promise on their sign is true? Just wondering.

Pete’s Pizza and its wonderful sign are on Avenue M in Brooklyn. I love the way each e in Pete’s is a little off-center.

Wakefield Paint and Wallpaper has a lovely carousel going on their sign. It’s at the end of the 2 and 5 line in the Bronx.

Bermudez Bakery is in East Harlem. The color scheme is a little too bright for my taste, but “dulces” sounds good.

“The Killarney Rose opened its doors over 43 years ago, making it one of the longest standing downtown local bar,” the website tells us. Looks like an old-school place to get a drink on Pearl Street.

Taking a drive on the Harlem River Speedway

July 23, 2012

Where is the quaint, summery, country-like scene depicted in this postcard, stamped 1908? Harlem, of course.

“Recognizing the long-standing popularity of horse racing among New Yorkers, the city built a ‘Harlem River Speedway’ along the west bank of the Harlem River in Manhattan,” writes

“The 95-foot-wide dirt roadway stretched two and one-half miles from West 155th Street north to West 208th Street. Presaging the automobile parkways of the 20th century, the speedway was flanked by trees and pedestrian walkways. When it was not being used as a racetrack, the Harlem River Speedway was used as an exercise track.”

Built in 1898, it was opened to automobiles in 1919 and paved a few years later. By the 1940s, it was closed off and incorporated into the Robert Moses-backed Harlem River Drive.

The lovely bridge in the background is the High Bridge. Closed for 40 years, it’s currently being restored and is set to reopen next year.

Lower Manhattan’s disease-ridden “lung block”

July 16, 2012

How would you like to live on a street dubbed the Lung Block by city officials?

This was the moniker given at the turn of the century to the gritty block bounded by Cherry, Catherine, Hamilton (Monroe), and Market Streets near the South Street Seaport.

The name comes from the high number of residents who suffered from contagious respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis.

“I know of no tenement house block in this city which is so bad from a sanitary point of view,” wrote Tenement House Commission head Robert De Forest in 1903.

“Every consideration of public health, morals, and decency require that the buildings on this block be destroyed at an early date,” he added.

Early 1900s journalist Ernest Poole recalled (by way of Philip Lopate’s excellent book Waterfront) that the Lung Block was home to 4,000 people, eight bars, and five “houses of ill fame.”

“And with drunkenness, foul air, darkness and filth to feed upon, the living germs of the Great White Plague, coughed up and spat on floors and walls, had done a thriving business for years,” recalled Poole.

The Lung Block finally bit the dust in the early 1930s, when public funds enabled developers to build Knickerbocker Village, which still stands at the site today (at right in 1934, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

There was at least one more Lung Block in the city: from Lenox to Seventh Avenues between 142nd and 143rd Streets in Harlem.

[Above photo: part of the Lung Block in the 1930s]

The city park built to hide a sewage plant

June 14, 2012

Okay, so massive smokestacks loom on top of a platform surrounded by lush trees and flowers.

But other than that, you might never know that Riverbank State Park, along the Hudson River in Harlem, masks an industrial secret.

The park’s expansive lawn, pools, and ball fields were built in the late 1980s on top of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which handles 125 million gallons of sewage daily.

With so much waste flowing around the park, does it reek? Some residents complained of a rotten-egg odor when it opened in 1993, but the stench seems to have gone away.

Of course, there are other environmental risks—like fire. In 2011, a four-alarm blaze that started in the treatment plant sent 30-foot plumes of smoke into the air and forced park-goers to evacuate.

Aside from that, it’s a lovely, clean park with a fantastic view of the Hudson—one that’s worth the trip to 145th Street to see.

[Bottom photo: the park from New Jersey, via Wikipedia]

The racing sport that once thrilled New York

June 11, 2012

Bike racing is mostly an outdoors activity now, and it doesn’t have the most thrilling rep.

But from the 1890s to the 1920s, an amped-up indoor version of the sport was one of the most popular attractions in the city.

Grueling races were held in huge indoor tracks. Madison Square Garden (left, in 1928), then on 26th Street and Madison Avenue, was an early venue.

Cyclists would pedal at top speed on oval wooden tracks, sometimes for days, resulting in spectacular, NASCAR-like crashes.

Newspapers printed racing results—when they weren’t decrying the brutality of the sport.

“An athletic contest in which the participants ‘go queer’ in their heads, and strain their powers until their faces become hideous with the tortures that rack them, is not sport, it is brutality,” opined The New York Times in 1897.

But fans loved the drama, and racing arenas called velodromes popped up.

The New York Velodrome (above) was built on Broadway and 225th Street in 1921, seating 16,000 fans.

The Coney Island Velodrome (left) also opened in the 1920s, hosted 10,000 fans, who watched racers fly along 45-degree banked corners.

So what sank the sport? It took a huge hit in the Depression. In the 1930s, both New York tracks burned down, and indoor cycling never recovered.

Today, there is one velodrome left in New York, built in 1962: in Kissena Park in Queens.

[Top photo: NYPL Digital Collection; middle:]