Archive for the ‘West Village’ Category

The 1950s plan for a Washington Square Highway

April 12, 2014

The history of New York City is littered with never-realized proposals: moving sidewalks, a burial ground in Central Park, and these 100-story apartment houses meant for Harlem.

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Another half-baked idea that (luckily) never got off the ground was a plan for a highway running through Washington Square Park, proposed many times through the 1950s by “master builder” Robert Moses.

Washsquareparkplan1940As Parks Commissioner in 1940, Moses originally wanted to build a “double highway” snaking along the side of Washington Square Park (left).

At the time, a narrow roadway let vehicles go south from Fifth Avenue to Washington Square South (above, in 1950).

That double highway was shot down thanks to opposition from local residents, business owners, and NYU officials. But Moses wasn’t giving up so easily.

Washsquare1950splanIn the early 1950s, he proposed bisecting the park with a 48-foot-wide highway connecting Fifth Avenue to West Broadway—which would be widened and illustriously renamed Fifth Avenue South.

Naturally community leaders were outraged. In 1955, plans were submitted for a “depressed, four-lane highway running through the park in an open cut from Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch,” wrote The New York Times.

Washsquare1960s“Mothers and children, New York University students and others who use the park would be able to cross from one half of the park to the other by a foot-bridge thirty-six feet wide.”

Again, opposition was fierce. Jane Jacobs led the fight, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford in her corner.

They were fighting not only the Washington Square Highway plan but another Moses’ idea to raze 14 blocks of prime Greenwich Village real estate and build a series of apartment complexes.

By the end of the decade, Moses retreated. Washington Square Park has been remodeled and revamped, but at least it’s not crisscrossed by a superhighway.

[Photos: the Square in the 1950s and 1960s, New York University Archives]

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]

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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]

Paulstrandcentralparkscene1915-16

[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.

Identifying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims

March 22, 2014

TriangleshirtwaistcorpsesThe fire started at 4:40 p.m. It was Saturday, March 25—a workday in 1911.

As flames quickly turned the top three floors of the Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place into a “roaring cornice of flames,” dozens of employees crowded the windows and fire escapes.

Half an hour later, when the fire had been extinguished, 146 Triangle Waist Company workers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. The grim task of identifying so many victims had begun.

Triangleshirtwaistcorpsesgreene

Over the next several hours, their corpses were laid out on the sidewalk, tagged, put in coffins, and loaded into wagons.

They were going to Charities Pier, off East 26th Street—nicknamed “Misery Lane” because it was the makeshift morgue where city officials routinely brought victims of lethal disasters.

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“When the wagons arrived, they were met by a team of homeless men dragooned from the Municipal Lodging House, who were assigned to open the boxes and arrange them in two long rows,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

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“At midnight, the doors opened. The first in a growing line of friends and family members began shuffling up one long row and down the other. Low voices, slow footsteps, the cry of gulls, and the lapping of water punctuated the heavy silence.

“A faint sulfuric glow fell from the lights hung high in the rafters. They did little  to illuminate the coffins, however, so policemen stood every few feet holding lanterns.

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“When a loved one paused at a box and peered close, the nearest officer dangled his lantern helpfully.

Trianglememorialevergreens“The light swayed and flickered over the disfigured faces. Now and then a shock of recognition announced itself in a piercing cry or sudden sob splitting the ghastly quiet.”

The task of identifying the dead lasted four cold, rainy days. Pickpockets and the morbidly fascinated lined up along with family members.

Within a week, all but seven bodies had been ID’d.

In April, they were honored in a procession (above) and buried together at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Returning to a strange, unrecognizable New York

March 10, 2014

Marktwain1867Like Joan Didion in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” countless authors have written their story of coming to the city, building a life here, and then realizing for various reasons that it was time to go.

But there’s a similar tale that isn’t told as often. It’s about living in New York, then leaving—only to return years later to a city that feels different, distant, not the home you knew so intimately.

It happened to Mark Twain. In 1854, at age 18, he left his city printer’s job for California, where he made a name for himself as a journalist.

In 1867 (three years before this photo was taken of Canal and Mott Streets) he found himself back in an indifferent, business-oriented New York.

He dubbed it “the overgrown metropolis” and mused about how “the town is all changed since I was here, 13 years ago, when I was a pure and sinless sprout” in letters to his former newspaper.

Mottandcanalstreets1870“I have at last, after several months’ experience, made up my mind that it is a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race, ” Twain wrote that August.

“Every man seems to feel that he has got the duties of two lifetimes to accomplish in one, and so he rushes, rushes, rushes, and never has time to be companionable—never has any time at his disposal to fool away on matters which do not involve dollars and duty and business.”

Henryjameswithfather1854“There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever—a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing.”

Twain would not stay in New York very long. Later that year he traveled to Europe and the Middle East, then settled in Hartford, Connecticut.

Author Henry James, above with his father, also felt like a stranger when he came back to New York in 1904 after years in Europe.

21washingtonplaceBorn and raised on genteel Washington Place in the 1840s, James was aghast at the new skyscrapers, which he deemed in The American Scene “grossly tall and grossly ugly” and “. . . extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted, and stuck in as in the dark, anywhere and anyhow. . . .”

He was struck by “the terrible little Ellis Island,”  trolley cars “stuffed to suffocation,” and the “melancholy monument” that was the new arch on Washington Square.

And James was really upset about NYU knocking down the school’s original college building…along with his childhood home.

Henryjames1913singersargent[Above, the NYU building that took James' childhood home's place on 21 Washington Place].

“The grey and more or less ‘hallowed’ University building—wasn’t it somehow, with a desperate bravery, both castellated and gabled?—has vanished from the earth, and with it the two or three adjacent houses, of which the birthplace was one.”

[Henry James in 1913, by John Singer Sargent]

Gorgeous neon signs illuminating the city

March 3, 2014

What’s more beautiful than block after block of glowing reds and blues and pinks and yellows, emanating light and heat?

Oldhomesteadsign

These food-oriented neon signs also make you hungry. The Old Homestead sign looks pretty old, though not as old as this steak house (two words!) itself, from 1868.

Donutpub14thstreet

The Donut Pub on 14th Street, a 50-year-old remnant of New York before cronuts and Starbucks, recently survived a competitive attack by an upstart Dunkin’ Donuts down the block, which quietly closed shop a few years ago.

DeRobertispastryshoppe

DeRobertis Caffe and Pasticceria has been baking sweets for 110 years on First Avenue near 14th Street, when this was an Sicilian immigrant micro-neighborhood featuring Russo Brothers, Veniero, and probably hundreds of small shops lost to history.

Queensign

Queen is an oddly named Italian restaurant (since 1958!) on Court Street in Brooklyn. You have to dig that crown.

Katzsign

And of course, Katz’s Deli, a treasure of New York neon and store signage—and sandwiches and Jewish soul food too.

More sublime neon beauty can be found here.

The tenement and alley cats of old New York

March 3, 2014

Lolcats they are not: They’re not cuddly, expressive, or internet-friendly. They don’t play the keyboard on YouTube. They’re not even the cute mousers who live in many of the bodegas in our contemporary city.

Catontenementsteps1890mcny

These felines are old-school apartment and alley cats who caught the attention of photographers—perhaps impressed by their toughness and ability to survive on the city’s mean streets.

Rhinelanderhousescat1937mcny

This cow-spotted furball is lounging on a fence post in 1937 at Rhinelander Gardens, a beautiful stretch of circa-1850s homes with decorative cast-iron torn down in 1957 to make room for P.S. 41.

Catinawindow1935mcny

Two years earlier, a similar-looking kitty hangs out on a window frame. No protective screens in that walkup.

Catincitygarbage1952

On Catherine Street in 1952, thanks to residents who failed to put their trash in cans, a hungry alley cat is sniffing out his dinner.

[Photos: MCNY]

Life in a New York University dorm in 1897

January 30, 2014

Today’s NYU students have an array of university housing options available to them. In 1897, dorm options were probably more limited.

Newyorkuniversitydorm1897

This 1897 photo shows the inside of a dorm room at the old University Heights campus in the Bronx, personalized with a horseshoe . . . and boxing gloves? One student is trying to study, the other appears to be playing music . . . college life hasn’t changed.

The caption to the photo, from this fascinating NYU history website, states: “The earliest evidence of university housing is an 1840 list of six students residing in the old University Building on Washington Square.”

NYU had fraternities back then too. Here, some 1890s bros smoke pipes and do bong hits.

Ghostly outlines of vanished city buildings

January 30, 2014

Many of the posts on Ephemeral New York explore concrete things that used to exist in New York City.

But sometimes, a building or house disappears without a backstory or even an address. It simply leaves behind a faded outline of what once was, and we’re left to wonder.

Outlinebondstreet

What kind of little house was this, with two chimneys and a pointed roof, once on Bond Street off Broadway?

In the mid-19th century, Bond Street was super fancy and exclusive. It must have been a lovely home.

Outline23rdstreet

This one above, which once flanked a cast-iron beauty, looks like an old walkup, on 23rd Street near Sixth Avenue, once the premier shopping district of Gilded Age New York.

Outlinecrosbystreet

Is this a doll house that was once sandwiched between two handsome midrise buildings on Crosby Street? Maybe a carriage house.

Outlinewest8thstreet

It looks like two or three different ghost buildings outlined against a tenement on West Eighth Street near MacDougal Street. At first I thought those were chimneys . . . but they’re just bricked-in windows.

More faded outlines can be found here.

A pioneering photographer’s Greenwich Village

January 27, 2014

Born in 1870 in Ontario, Jessie Tarbox Beals starting taking photos in 1888, the year she won a camera for selling a magazine subscription.

She then scored staff photographer jobs at national newspapers, mostly in upstate New York and New England.

Jessietarboxbealspatchinplace1910

Beals was the rare female news photographer in a field dominated by men—partly because journalism was generally closed to women.

But also, few women could lug the 50 pounds of camera equipment required for the job (while wearing a whalebone corset, no less).

Jessietarboxbealsspaghetti

In 1905, she and her husband settled in New York City. Here she produced some of her most enduring images, particularly after she moved to Greenwich Village in 1917 and opened a studio in Sheridan Square.

Jessietarboxbealsinkpot

A favorite subject was Bohemian life: the tearooms and cafes where writers and artists congregated, as well as the Village’s crooked alleys and mews.

The Ink Pot, above, was a small magazine run from a Sheridan Square office, per the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation.

Jessietarboxbealscrumperie

She also trained her camera on street life scenes, particularly of city kids at school (below, a school lunch at P.S. 40) and at play, selling photos to leading magazines and newspapers and turning some into postcards.

Jessietarboxbealsps40lunchnypl2

She credited her success with her ability to hustle work—and also her inner strength. “‘Mere feminine, delicate, Dresden china type of women get nowhere in business or professional life,’” she wrote in her diary, according to a 2000 New York Times article.

Jessietarboxbealsportrait“They marry millionaires, if they are lucky. But if a woman is to make headway with men, she must be truly masculine.’”

Beals (at left) moved away from New York in the late 1920s to work in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The stock market crash brought her back to the city, where she struggled to make a living in an increasingly crowded profession.

She died in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital in 1942 at age 71, destitute.

[Top photos Library of Congress; school photo: New York Public Library Digital Collection]

Riding the gritty High Line of the 1930s

January 27, 2014

HighlinefreighttrainCould anyone in 1934—the year the High Line opened—have predicted that the gritty elevated rail line running along Manhattan’s West Side in and out of factories and warehouses would be turned into a grassy, pedestrian-packed park 75 years later?

Probably not. These Parks Department photos reveal the High Line of a more industrial New York, a city with a bustling manufacturing base all along the far West Side.

A freight train heads downtown in the first one—dropping off raw materials or picking up finished products.

The second depicts the High Line south of Horatio Street, a section that was demolished in the 1960s.

Highlinefromwestbeth1935

The vantage point: the former Bell Laboratories, now known as Westbeth, residential and commercial space set aside by the city for artists.

What was the last shipment to be transported by train via the High Line before it closed in 1980? A load of frozen turkeys.


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