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

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]

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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]

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

A West Side dairy sign comes out of hiding

October 21, 2013

steinbergsSteinberg’s Dairy Restaurant was one of those wonderful cheapo kosher luncheonettes that used to be all over neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, the East Village, and the Lower East Side.

Operating at a couple of locations on Broadway in the west 80s since the 1930s, their massive menu (digitized here by the New York Public Library) was packed with all kinds of Jewish comfort food: potato latkes, cheese blintzes, kreplach, and chopped herring.

steinbergssign

The place has been gone for at least a few decades—and perhaps many of its customers gone as well. But for a brief moment last week, Steinberg’s reappeared.

The Town Shop lingerie store has relocated there, and while removing the sign from the previous occupant (Laytners Linen) and installing their sign, Steinberg’s vintage lettering (1940s? 1950s?) was let out of its tomb.

[Thanks to NW for the photos]

Is this the first McDonald’s in New York City?

September 8, 2013

[Update: Thank you to everyone who ID’d this as Boston, not NYC. My apologies; post will be deleted]

Look closely at the left side of the 1905 postcard photo, and you can see the sign: “McDonald’s Restaurant.”

Hmm, could this humble-looking eatery have any idea that in less than seven decades, a different McDonald’s would start taking over the city?

72ndstreetpostcard

The first McDonald’s franchise opened at 215 West 125th Street in 1973, reports this New York magazine piece, and now, there are more than 74 just in Manhattan.

72ndstrestaurantcropWhat I’m calling the original first McDonald’s, the one in the 1905 photo, appears to be on Upper Broadway; according to the store owner who sold it to me, it’s 72nd Street and Broadway.

But the kiosk looks so different. Can anyone positively ID it?

The dates on New York’s buildings and signs

September 2, 2013

I love looking up at old signs and facades and seeing the date the building or business opened. Sometimes the numbers are more functional than architecturally beautiful, but it’s always worth knowing how long a store or service has been around.

Northerndispensarysign

The sign for Northern Dispensary, kind of a walk-in health clinic for Greenwich Villagers in the early 19th century, has one of the oldest dates I’ve seen: 1827.

Treissbuilding

By comparison, the Treiss Building, on Atlantic Avenue on the Cobble Hill-Brooklyn Heights border since 1872, is practically a newbie.

1894datefirehouse

Ornamentation like this, from the facade of a city firehouse established in 1894 in the Flatiron District, is always a treat. And the AD is a nice touch.

Thomasdrugs1904

I’d love to go back in time and see what Thomas Drugs, on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, looked like in 1904.

Yonahshimmelsign

Judging from its shabby-chic faded look, the sign for Yonah Shimmel Knishes, on Houston Street, just might actually have been painted in 1910.

Left behind street signage of an older Manhattan

August 5, 2013

Readers of this site know that street signs are a favorite here, especially the old-fashioned kind carved into a building’s facade—like the one below at Sixth Avenue and 24th Street.

Doesn’t the lettering transport you to an entirely different New York? In fancy type it tells us that we’re at The Corner.

Thecornersign

“Built in 1879, it was called ‘The Corner’ and was the beer hall annex to Koster & Bial’s Vaudeville Theater/Concert Hall, where Victor Herbert conducted his 40-piece orchestra,” explains a 1995 New York Times piece.

102ndstreetsign

At the time, this was the center of an area called the Tenderloin (also referred to illustriously as Satan’s Circus), the late 19th century sin district filled with dance halls, gambling dens, and brothels.

This corner sign for 102nd Street and Broadway is also wonderfully decorative. I’m not sure when it went up, but it looks very turn of the 20th century. (Thanks to Ephemeral reader IA for pointing it out.)

Doyersstreetsign

This one on Doyers Street in Chinatown might be the oldest actual Manhattan street sign—meaning a sign affixed to a pole or side of a building, rather than a plaque or engraving.

Grimy and hard to read after decades stuck to this building, it harkens back to a more down and dirty Chinatown of tong wars, when Doyers Street went by the infamous nickname the Bloody Angle.

An apartment house called the “Harlem Dakota”

July 18, 2013

Grahamcourt1900sThe Dakota, the Apthorp, and the Astor regularly top the list of the most incredible apartment houses on the Upper West Side.

A bit farther north on West 116th Street is a lesser-known building that belongs in that group: Graham Court.

It’s a box-like eight-story structure containing 100 apartments that spans the block to 117th Street at Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.

Grahamcourtcloseup

Designed by the men behind the Apthorp and Astor, Graham Court opened in 1901 and was considered Harlem’s first luxury apartment house, thanks to its limestone facade, Gustavino tiles, and servants’ quarters on the top floor.

Grahamcourtarchway(Though I doubt 116th Street counts as Harlem today, apparently it did 100 years ago.)

“Graham Court’s residents, all of whom were rich and white, entered the building through a gracious arch that led into a grand inner courtyard built over an underground stable,” wrote Jonathan Gill in Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America.

Like a lot of developers who rushed to cash in on the growth of Harlem at the turn of the century, the people behind Graham Court probably thought it would remain rich and white forever.

Grahamcourt2013But a 1904 real-estate crash left blocks of empty buildings. African-American New Yorkers began relocating uptown, filling those buildings. In 1928, the first black resident moved into Graham Court, according to a New York Times article.

Graham Court hit hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. But the facade was landmarked in 1984, and though I don’t know what the apartments inside look like, from the street this remnant of Gilded Age New York appears to be well cared for.