Archive for the ‘Upper West Side/Morningside Hts’ Category

The West Side girl who swam the English Channel

April 21, 2014

GetrudeederlepicGood thing the heavy Victorian female “bathing outfit” of the late 19th century evolved.

Thanks to lighter, tighter suits, women began taking up swimming—like young Gertrude Ederle. Born in 1906 to German immigrant parents, Trudy learned to swim at the Jersey shore. She dubbed herself a “water baby” and broke dozens of distance records.

She medaled in the 1924 Paris Olympics. But her greatest achievement was yet to come.

GetrudeederlesouvinerphotoIn the 1920s, crazy competitions of strength and endurance were all the rage, among them attempts to swim across the English Channel.

Men had made the 21-mile trip, but no woman had—until August 1926, when 20-year-old Trudy left Dover, England smeared in grease and made it ashore in Cape Griz-Niz, France after 14 hours and 20 minutes in choppy, rough waters.

On August 27th, when she arrived home from Europe, New York City went wild with celebration.

“Airplanes circled overhead as her ship steamed up the Narrows, the harbor swarmed with the biggest fleet of small craft ever seen, and cheering admirers packed Broadway as she rode to City Hall in a blizzard of ticker tape, confetti, and flowers,” wrote Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

“The Daily News gave her seven full pages of coverage and a new road roadster, and after a stop at City Hall to accept the key to the city from Mayor Walker, she rode home to a neighborhood that had become a sea of flags, bunting, and ‘Welcome, Trudy’ signs.”

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Her father’s butcher shop at 108 Amsterdam was decorated with bunting. The next day 5,000 people turned out on West 65th Street for a block party in her honor (above).

GertudeederleparadeTrudy received offers from Hollywood and Broadway and was deluged by marriage proposals. But after the hoopla died down, she mostly returned to living a quiet, unassuming life.

 She moved to Queens and working as a swimming instructor for deaf children (her hearing was seriously damaged in the water of the Channel).

The swimmer dubbed “America’s Best Girl” by President Coolidge after her feat died in 2003 at age 98.

She hasn’t been totally lost to history; in 2013, the city opened the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, complete with a pool, in her old neighborhood on West 60th Street.

Twenty years of Starbucks in New York City

April 14, 2014

If your experience in New York doesn’t stretch back more than two decades, then you’ve never known a time when the city didn’t have multiple Starbucks stores in almost every neighborhood.

Broadway87thstsignIt was 20 years ago this month when the first Starbucks opened on Broadway and 87th Street.

“At 3,000 square feet, this is the largest of the company’s 318 stores and also one of the largest coffee bars in the city,” wrote Florence Fabricant in her New York Times column on April 27, 1994.

That writeup didn’t capture the conflicting emotions many New Yorkers felt about having Starbucks descend on the city.

“When the store at 87th Street welcomed its first caffeine-charged customers in April 1994, national chains and upscale retailers and restaurants were not common in that part of the Upper West Side,” stated a New York Times article from 2003, the year the first store closed.

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Starbucks “stirs conflicting feelings among people who live near their branches,” another Times article from 1995 said.

“Some see the coffee bars as promising signs of upscale development and badges of sophistication. Others are put off by the sprawling uniformity of Starbucks stores and fear that they may threaten the distinctive character of old-time establishments in their areas.”

Twenty years later, the opening of a Starbucks branch can still whip up the same opinions.

[photo: a Starbucks in the East 20s, one of 283 in the city]

A pioneering photographer captures the 1910s

March 24, 2014

Born on the Upper West Side in 1890, Paul Strand became a pioneering filmmaker with his eerie silent Manhatta in 1921, among other motion pictures during his six-decade career.

[Below: American City, 1916]

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He’s also one of the first street photographers—credited with establishing photography as an art form in the teens and capturing haunting images of people amid the sleek, dehumanized early 20th century metropolis.

[Below: Wall Street 1915]

Paulstrandwallstreet1915

Strand’s interest in photography began during his student years at the Ethical Culture School. Photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine was his teacher, and Hine introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, artists who greatly influenced Strand’s work.

Paulstrandblind1916Stieglitz soon became a mentor. “In early 1915, his mentor Stieglitz criticized the graphic softness of Strand’s photographs and over the next two years he dramatically changed his technique and made extraordinary photographs on three principal themes: movement in the city, abstractions, and street portraits,” states the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“During the 1910s, New York thronged with pedestrians, carriages, and automobiles, and the streets became the unavoidable symbol of flux, change, and modernity.”

Strand did something revolutionary at the time: he abandoned posed photography in favor of portraits of people unaware of the camera.

[Above: Blind, 1916]

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[Above: "Central Park Scene, 1915"]

He stated his reasoning: “I felt that one could get a quality of being through the fact that the person did not know he was being photographed … [and I wanted to capture] these people within an environment which they themselves had chosen to be in, or were in anyway.”

Paulstrandmanfivepntssqny1916Strand shot images of the poor, of immigrants, of workers, of the blind and disabled, of aging New Yorkers in parks. His work reveals the humanity amid a modern city on the move, bustling with traffic, crowds, and commerce.

“Treating the human condition in the modern urban context, Strand’s photographs are a subversive alternative to the studio portrait of glamour and power,” states the Met.

[Above: Man, Five Points Square, New York, 1916]

“A new kind of portrait akin to a social terrain, they are, as Sanford Schwartz put it, ‘cityscapes that have faces for subjects.’”

See the 10-minute Manhatta here—it’s a treasure.

Central Park West’s most enchanting apartments

March 17, 2014

SturbantallThe wonderful thing about New York is that you can pass a building hundreds of times before discovering its magic.

Which is how, on a rainy late afternoon with just a slant of sunlight left in the sky, I discovered the beauty of the Beaux-Arts gem the St. Urban.

It’s a 12-story apartment house at 89th Street, one of many French flat–style residences built in an almost unbroken line along Central Park West at the turn of the last century.

The building’s neighbors, the Dakota and the San Remo, are perhaps more flamboyant. The St. Urban’s beauty is more understated, and it stands today as an elegant throwback—described in one book as a “splendid anachronism” of gracious, Gilded Age living.

SturbancherubFacing the park is a porte-cochere—a magnificent recessed carriage entrance—illuminated by golden globes affixed to the limestone entrance.

The St. Urban’s sloping mansard roof and dormer windows give it a castle-like feel, which is underscored by its rounded, domed tower crowned with a copper lantern.

I’m not the only one enchanted by the St. Urban. In 2001, writer Andre Aciman had this to say about the building, in a New York Times Magazine issue that focused on the specialness of New York City.

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“As with Monet’s portraits of the Rouen cathedral, does the St. Urban stir so many images that changing the season, the cast of light or time of day changes the building as well?,” wrote Aciman.

Sturbanwiki

“All I know is that something in me is forever grafted here—which is why I dare not think of the city without this building, or of me without this city, or of this building without me.”

Beauty and vitality at the Columbus Avenue El

February 10, 2014

Gifford Beal may not be as well-known as fellow Ashcan School artists John Sloan and William Glackens. But that makes discovering Beal’s enchanting impressionistic paintings such a joy.

“Elevated, Columbus Avenue, New York” was completed in 1916, and it’s likely an El stop near Beal’s own apartment, states the New Britain Museum of Art.

Bealcolumbusaveel

“Beal’s impressionistic rendering does indeed capture the ceaseless movement that invigorates city life,” states the museum website.

“His figures are carefully arranged dabs of color that lack precise detailing. Yet within this blur of activity, Beal offers small vignettes that humanize the anonymous crowd: a woman posts a letter, a top-hatted gentleman steadies his friend on the slippery walkway, a worker clears snow with a broom.”

“Whereas some artists of the day, such as the members of the Ashcan School, focused on the poverty and alienation that could be found within the city, Beal saw the beauty and vitality that existed there as well.”

A West Side neighborhood before Lincoln Center

February 3, 2014

The bell started tolling in 1956 for the rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods west of Amsterdam Avenue in the West 60s.

“New York stands on the threshold of a brave, new era in the performing arts,” lead a New York Times article in April 1956. “An integrated center to serve the theatre, opera and operetta, music and dance is well into the planning stage.”

[Below: a man crosses West 63rd at Amsterdam in 1956]

Amsterdam163rdstnycparksarchive

To build that integrated center, of course, meant doing a little urban renewal: bulldozing the tenements, shops, and light industrial spaces spread out across coveted acreage in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill.

Lincoln Square’s boundaries aren’t clear; this working-class area may have encompassed Columbus Circle to 72nd Street, from Central Park West to the Hudson River.

Womenandkidsstooplincolncnter

[Above: a woman and kids hang out on a stoop before it makes way for Lincoln Center, 1956.]

San Juan Hill was a vibrant, mostly African-American enclave of tenements, music halls, and theaters.

[Below: a street in the West 60s, 1956]

Lincolnsquaretenement1956

Before the wrecking ball arrived in 1957, proponents for and against building what would be known as Lincoln Center duked it out at City Planning Commission meetings.

The argument then is the same one used to today whenever a big project threatens a neighborhood’s existence.

“Friends of the project praised it as a potential contribution to civic progress, education and the cultural arts,” stated a later Times piece.

Kidsinemptylot1956lincolncnter

[Above: kids play in an empty lot strung with laundry, 1956]

“Opponents viewed it as another slum clearance scheme the failed to take into account such human values as the adequate relocation of 7,000 families and hundreds of small businesses.”

LincolncentermetoperahouseLincoln Center is 52 years old this year, so we know how the story ends.

But for the curious who wonder about the neighborhoods that once stood where the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall are today, photos like these remain.

[Photos: New York City Parks Department photo archives]

Railcars and rain along the Hudson River

December 23, 2013

George Bellows‘ “Rain on the River,” from 1908, depicts the gray Hudson and its smoky railroad high above Riverside Park under a foreboding sky.

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“His view from a rockly ledge above Riverside Park surveys a freight train making its way along the New York Central’s famous Water Level Route,” states the caption to this painting, which belongs to the Rhode Island School of Design museum.

“The string of railcars echoes the rushing diagonal that marks the near bank of the Hudson River. Aggressive brushstrokes indicate reflective surfaces that are animated by graphic observations: a lone pedestrian scurries acros a rain-slicked path, and a horse-drawn cart awaits a delivery of scavenged coal.”

The caption goes on to say that Bellows considered this one “one of my most beautiful things.”

Spending Christmas 1971 at the Continental Baths

December 23, 2013

I wonder how many people actually spent December 25, 1970 taking in the scene inside the Upper West Side’s infamous Continental Baths?

Contintentalbathsad122371

According to this Village Voice ad from December 23, “the world’s most liberated club” was hosting a special Christmas show (ladies admitted at 11:15!), and then a New Years’ celebration as well.

AnsoniahotelOpened in 1968 in the basement of the then-faded Ansonia Hotel (right) on West 74th Street, the Continental Baths was a “sexual Xanadu”—a place where gay men in towels could dance, socialize, and be entertained by not-yet-famous Bette Midler (and her piano player, Barry Manilow), Nell Carter, and Melba Moore.

The Baths operated until the mid-1970s, when it was rebranded as swingers’ paradise Plato’s Retreat. Perhaps they too had a Christmas Day special?

This New York magazine article from 1973 offers a detailed look inside “New York’s most Weimarian nightspot.”

A new kind of tenement on East 31st Street

December 16, 2013

HenryphippsTurn of the century New York had many millionaires. Some built Fifth Avenue palaces for themselves, while others invested part of their fortune in better housing for others.

Henry Phipps did both. A steel magnate with a Fifth Avenue mansion, Phipps constructed model tenements—cleaner, more livable multi-family residences than the typical city tenement, which was a hastily constructed firetrap packing many people in airless rooms.

“I shall like the buildings to have all the light and air possible; to have them fire-proof and thoroughly sanitary, and so far as possible, to have spaces around them in which the children could play,” he said, according to a 1905 New York Times article.

Phippshousesmcny2

This wasn’t a charity; Phipps put up the money hoping for at least a minimal return on his million-dollar investment, which he planned to use to build more tenements.

The first Phipps model tenement went up two years later at 325 to 335 East 31st Street. About 150 apartments housed 800 residents, who enjoyed steam heat, hot water, laundry facilities, tub baths, and rooms with windows that opened to the outside (rather than a filthy air shaft).

PhippsbrochurenyplBy 1912, two more Phipps buildings were built on West 63rd and West 64th Streets; they were occupied mostly by black New Yorkers in what was then an African-American neighborhood called San Juan Hill.

Why only three Phipps houses in Manhattan, especially when two out of three residents lived in a traditional tenement, and better housing was desperately needed?

Perhaps because the market-rate rents ended up attracting middle-class residents, and working-class and poor people were priced out—one reason other model tenements didn’t last long either

The two West Side Phipps tenements still stand, but the 31st Street complex was demolished decades ago.

[Middle photo: Museum of the City of New York; bottom: NYPL Digital Collection]

The suicide hotspot of an uptown el train station

October 28, 2013

It was the tallest peak of the entire New York City subway during the early 20th century: a sharp curve along the Ninth Avenue elevated line where the tracks suddenly switched over to Eighth Avenue at 110th Street.

Suicidecurve110thstpostcard

This S-curve, part of the original 19th century elevated system, practically hugged the tenements that were eventually built around it; the motorman had to slow the train drastically to navigate the curve.

Suicidecurve110thstreetBut it also has a grim distinction: it was nicknamed “suicide curve” because of the high number of jumpers who leapt to their deaths there.

A 1925 New York Times article marks the eighth suicide from the tracks.

“Climbing over the guard rail on the platform of the 110th Street station of the Sixth and Ninth Avenue elevated trains at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon, Henry Milch, 44 years old, of 715 West 175th Street, committed suicide by throwing himself from the structure. . . .”

“His body struck the pavement at the corner of 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue, within a few feet of a group of children at play in Morningside Park.”

A 1927 Times piece notes that local merchants felt all the jumpers were killing their business.

Suicidecurve110thst1905According to a merchant association official, “there were eleven suicides from that station in the past year, and the effect has been such that potential customers prefer to walk a little further rather than risk seeing a person hurtle from above.”

The merchants asked that mesh screens be placed around the sides of the station. Apparently this never happened, but the problem was solved when the el tracks there were dismantled in 1940.

The Central Park Reservoir was another suicide hotspot for New Yorkers in the first decades of the 20th century.

And the Empire State Building has always attracted the despondent and dramatic.


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