New York is a brick and mason wall ghost town

January 18, 2016

The construction boom across the city has this upside: after an old building has been flattened by the wrecking ball, its faded outline remains behind for a little while, before something new and shiny covers it up.

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These building phantoms give city streets an eerie vibe; they’re red brick and mason wall palimpsests of another New York. Look at the little chimneys that warmed what looks like a former Federal-style home on Bond Street?

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In Downtown Brooklyn, traces of a two-story tenement on the right hint at what kind of residences lined the streets of the independent city in the 19th century.

Fadedoutlineeast17thstreet

On East 17th Street in is a reminder of what this Flatiron block looked like when it was all low-rises, not tall lofts.

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This corner building in Chelsea must have cut a handsome, sturdy profile. The rooms of the second floor are still outlined too.

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Back when Jane Street was just a tiny lane in the village of Greenwich, there was a little house under this steep little roof.

Catching a West Side horse car in a winter storm

January 18, 2016

With its network of privately owned horse cars, elevated railroads, and trolleys, New York in the mid- to late-19th century had a relatively decent public transit system.

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But getting around could be rough in bad weather, especially in one of the horse cars—the way thousands of workingmen, shop girls, and other New Yorkers regularly traveled.

Streetcardriverchristmas“The cold, bitter gale from across the Hudson River nearly swept me into the sunken lots, as I waited at the lower corner of 57th Street for the horse car to come down Eighth Avenue,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor, of an episode that happened during his boyhood on the West Side in the 1860s.

“The wail of the wind through the telegraph wires on the lofty poles gave additional dreariness. Then the sharp scrape of horses’ shoes on the cobblestones seemed to add to the tingling cold.”

Each horse car had a driver, who sat on top and wore a wool cap and “a soldier’s overcoat with the cape brought up over his head,” wrote Kelly. A conductor was also in the car, clad in “a large fur cap” and “a huge seedy overcoat, ragged and patched at the pockets from being worn away by making change.”

The cars seated 13 passengers on each side; a trip generally cost a nickel. Riders could also sit up front with the driver or stand outside on front and rear platforms.

There was no heat in the cars, of course. Piles of straw thrown across the floor, like a barnyard, offered some insulation from the elements. Two kerosene lamps at each end of the car glowed weakly at night.

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“The window panes were so encrusted with ice and frost that one had to scratch it off to see the street,” Kelly remembered when the car was on its way to Vesey Street. “I began to get restless, so I went out on the front platform, where I found great pleasure in watching the straining muscles of the lean horses.”

Streetcarsnow1872nyplThe “fumes of the kerosene mingled with those of the wet straw and damp clothes of the passengers made it hard breathing … I worked my way up and out to the front beside the driver, who by this time looked like a snowman.”

During rough trips like this one, Kelly recalled that passengers became very friendly. “They would talk and laugh with one another like villagers, and occasionally, someone would start singing, in which many would join.”

“Some of the conductors were very jolly, and the men who were generally smokers on the front platform, had a cheerful, if storm-beaten trip.”

Their good cheer came in handy. Cars sometimes jumped track; male passengers would exit and lift it back on the rails (horse cars followed iron rails laid down on the street).

Streetcar1899lexand34thmcnyIt wasn’t easy for the overworked, underfed horses. Of a fallen horse, Kelly wrote, “its lean flanks heaving and sighing was the only response it gave to the beating, howling, and yelling” of passengers who tried to help the animal. Once the horse had been taken off the road, a new team was hitched to theirs.

“The snow seemed to make the passengers unusually sociable,” he wrote. “The men began hobnobbing … while the clear air rang with the girls’ merry laughter…. So it went on till we reached the 49th Street stables.”

[Top photo: 34th and Broadway, 1899, MCNY; second-fourth images: NYPL; fifth photo: snow all cleared at 34th and Lexington Avenue, 1899, MCNY]

Snow lions flank the New York Public Library

January 11, 2016

In December 1948, a blizzard (remember those?) covered New York in almost 20 inches of white powder. An army of more than 18,000 men shoveled and plowed the snow as it fell all night.

They must have done a good job, because incredibly, city schools were all open the next morning.

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But they didn’t clear away the snow from the two library lions, Patience and Fortitude, who have been guarding the main entrance of the New York Public Library since 1911.

They look lovely blanketed in snow.

The meaning of a 200-year-old Central Park bolt

January 11, 2016

It’s easy to miss, just a gray iron rod hammered into a slab of gray Manhattan schist in Central Park. But this unassuming bolt is a relic with historical meaning.

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It was put there more than 200 years ago by John Randel Jr., a surveyor and engineer. Randel had been hired by a state-appointed commission tasked with drawing up a street plan for the growing city of New York.

BoltcentralparkcuBeginning in 1808, Randel’s job was to map out a grid that would divide Manhattan into blocks formed by east-west streets and north-south avenues, few of which existed at the time (Gotham’s northern border was Houston Street back then).

He submitted his plan, famously known as the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for the City of New York. Then the grunt work began.

“Randel spent the next 10 years staking out and marking the intersections from First Street to 155th Street with 1,549 three-foot-high marble monuments and, when the ground was too rocky, with 98 iron bolts secured by lead,” wrote Sam Roberts in a 2011 New York Times article.

As the city marched northward and the streets Randel mapped out were developed, the marble monuments and iron bolts disappeared.

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In 2004, this one in Central Park—left undisturbed, as Central Park escaped the street grid plan—was discovered by surveyor Lemuel Morrison and geographer Reuben Rose-Redwood while researching the grid system.

Exact directions to this unassuming relic are hard to find, since no one wants it to fall into the hands of souvenir hunters. New York history fans should start looking in the park’s southern end.

Two Brooklyn memorials to one 1960 plane crash

January 11, 2016

Newspaper headlines described a horrible scene. “Air crash rains death on city” screamed the New York Daily News on December 17, 1960.

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At 10:30 a.m. the day before, two passenger planes heading to LaGuardia collided over New York City.

A TWA airplane from Dayton, Ohio came down on Staten Island. A United DC-8 from Chicago hit the ground at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

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The final death toll of what was then the city’s worst air disaster would reach 134, including six victims in Brooklyn who were going about their day when the TWA craft plunged out of the sky.

AircrashstephenbaltzToday, Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue has long been cleaned up, though a few signs of the destruction of the crash remain. There’s no memorial at the intersection—but there are two not far away in Brooklyn.

One honors an 11-year-old boy who survived the initial crash. Stephen Baltz (left) was flying on his own to join his mom and sister in Yonkers, where they were planning to spend Christmas.

Baltz was badly burned, but he survived through the night before dying at Methodist Hospital up Seventh Avenue the next morning.

Inside the hospital’s Phillips Chapel is this understated plaque, above. “Our tribute to a brave little boy” it reads, next to the bronzed dimes and nickels Stephen had in his pocket. His parents put them in the hospital donation box after he died.

AircrashdailynewsIn Green-Wood Cemetery, a newer memorial marks the burial site of the bodies burned beyond recognition in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

“In an era before DNA identifications were possible, three caskets of ‘Fragmentary Human Remains’ were filled from the Park Slope crash site and were buried in a grave in lot 38325 that was purchased by United Airlines,” according to Green-Wood Cemetery.

Fifty years later in 2010, a granite memorial went up on the site. Inscribed on it are the names of all the victims.

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Nearby a bronze and granite stone poking out of the grass simply says, “In this grave rest unidentified remains of victims of the airplane crash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, December 16, 1960.”

[Top photo: Brooklyn Public Library/Irving I. Herzberg; third photo: New York Times; fourth photo: airliners.net/moose135photography]

Alienation and anxiety in a 1950s subway station

January 4, 2016

Brooklyn-born painter George Tooker depicts the disquietude of a mundane trip into a contemporary subway station in The Subway, on display at the Whitney Museum.

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“Made in 1950 with egg tempera paint, George Tooker’s The Subway, takes as its subject the alienating effects of modern life,” states the museum website.

“Just as the positioning, color, and facial expressions of figures in the painting suggest a dark side to modern life, so too does Tooker’s choice of subject matter: a subway station,” according to the website.

“This location emphasizes feelings of alienation, as any New York subway passenger knows. Subways are labyrinthine and almost prison-like, with low ceilings and barred areas. Tooker accentuates this effect by removing all signs from the subway station of his imagination, so that a person who is lost might never find his or her way out.”

Welcome to Poverty Gap, a 19th century slum

January 4, 2016

Povertygapwest28thstreetManhattan in the late 19th century had some awful slum districts. Not all of them were downtown.

“The city is full of such above the line of Fourteenth Street, that is erroneously supposed by some to fence off the good from the bad, separate the chaff from the wheat,” wrote journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis in 1890’s How the Other Half Lives.

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One small stretch of hardship in the geographical middle of the city was Poverty Gap, a stretch of West 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues.

Riis’ image (above) of the inside of a Poverty Gap tenement, “an English Coal-Heaver Home,” reveals just how terrible conditions were.

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“The father . . . earned on the average $5 a week ‘when work was fairly brisk,’ at the docks,” wrote Riis, a Danish immigrant. The entire family, including a baby, slept on a pile of rags, he added.

Poverty Gap, home of a group of “roughs” called the Alley Gang, appears to have been one of the city’s few mixed-race neighborhoods.

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In 1899, the New York Times reported that a black man who shot and mortally wounded a white burglar was almost lynched.

What became of this hardscrabble enclave? Riis visited again in 1908 and found that the Alley Gang had dispersed and one of the city’s first public playgrounds (above) took the place of a rundown tenement.

Povertygapplayground21890“The toughs were gone, with the old tenements that harbored them,” he wrote in Children of the Poor. “A decent flat had taken the place of the shanty across the street where a ‘longshoreman kicked his wife to death in a drunken rage.”

“And this play-ground, with its swarms of happy children who a year ago would have pelted the stranger with mud from behind the nearest truck—that was the greatest change of all. The retiring toughs have dubbed it ‘Holy Terror Park’ in memory of what it was, not of what it is.”

Far West Chelsea has had a colorful past, its small alleys and enclaves long forgotten, like Franklin Terrace.

[Photos: Jacob Riis]

What remains of a 1930 Upper West Side automat

January 4, 2016

The first Horn & Hardart automat opened in New York City in 1912. Over the next decades, 40 automats popped up in the city.

One of them was at 2710 Broadway, between 103rd and 104th Streets, seen here in a 1942 photo.

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Everyone who remembers these glass and chrome egalitarian eateries, with their walls of food compartments, recalls them with huge affection. Automats were the “Maxim’s of the disenfranchised,” said playwright Neil Simon.

Drop a nickel or two into the slot, and the compartment door opened, dispensing the object of your desire—like an egg salad sandwich, macaroni, baked beans, lemon meringue pie, or just black coffee.

Tables and chairs in the center of the tile room offered a place to sit and eat into the night. Behind the walls, employees restocked the compartment for the next hungry patron.

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The last automat hung in there until 1991. But the era of the automat had started to end in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the rise of fast food.

The one at Broadway and 103rd Street (above in 1980) stuck around until 1955, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Automat2015

Since then, 2710 Broadway has hosted a variety of businesses, like a supermarket and a Rite-Aid (above photo, 2015). It’s now a CityMD.

AutomatjeanarthurBut much of the facade hasn’t changed. It’s easy to visualize all the New Yorkers of decades past who nursed cups of coffee and slices of pie there, between auditions or jobs or on bad dates, or killing time, before continuing on their way.

A big thumbs up to the History Author Show for sharing these images and showing love for the city’s most iconic restaurant.

The automat made it into several movies shot in New York over the years. Watch Jean Arthur in 1931’s Easy Living, or Doris Day and Audrey Meadows in That Touch of Mink from 1962.

[Top photo: NYPL; Second photo: Landmarks Preservation Commission report]

A New Year’s night in a wintry Gilded Age city

December 28, 2015

Frederick Childe Hassam painted his lovely and mysterious “New Year’s Nocturne” in 1892. He gives us a young urban couple bathed in brilliant light in the dark winter night.

Newyear'snocturne

He’s dressed to the nines in top hat and tails, and she looks elegant in winter white and furs. They’re part of the in crowd, the smart set. Maybe they’re returning from the theater. Perhaps they are on their way to a New Year’s party.

In the shadows, other couples go on their way. Meanwhile, these two have stopped in front of a shop window display. If only we could ask Hassam, one of the great painters of New York’s Gilded Age, what has given them pause.

The one-cent coffee stands for poor New Yorkers

December 28, 2015

StAndrewsonecentcoffee1933The first booth opened on Ann Street off Broadway in 1887, close to City Hall and the high-octane newspaper offices of Park Row.

Called St. Andrew’s One Cent Coffee Stand, it served a half-pint of coffee (plus milk, sugar, and a slice of bread) for a penny.

Within months, four more one-cent coffee stands appeared on busy downtown intersections.

The menu included hearty fare like beef soup, pork and beans, fish cakes, and fish chowder—with no item costing more than a cent.

The concept sounds like a 19th century version of today’s sidewalk coffee and donut cart. But St. Andrew’s wasn’t catering to busy commuters.

StAndrewscoffeejacobriisThe clientele was the city’s down and out—the “newsboys, emigrants, poor families, and street waifs,” as one writer put it in Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine.

Founded by Clementine Lamadrid, the stands helped feed struggling residents who might be too proud to accept free meals.

“Meal tickets are sold at the booths and the headquarters for one cent each, so that every charity disposed person may carry a supply,” explained the Frank Leslie’s article.

In a city that offered almost no public relief of any kind, one-cent coffee and food was a pretty good deal for a street kid or jobless adult.

StAndrewsonecentcoffeebainNot everyone agreed. The Charity Organization Society, a proponent of aiding the poor in exchange for work, charged that St. Andrew’s “encourage idleness and make industry unnecessary. They draw into the city crowds of tramps and beggars,” reported the New York Sun.

Lamadrid was also accused of using the stands to enrich herself, which she denied.

The stands only appear to have survived through the 1930s—but not before making a small bit of difference for thousands of hungry New Yorkers.

[Top photo: 1933, Getty Images; middle: Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives; bottom photo: Bain Collection/Library of Congress]


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