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.

Washingtonsquarenyu1950

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]

The Mets fan who parachuted into Shea Stadium

April 12, 2014

MichaelsergiostudiousmetsimusIt happened during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series, in October 1986.

The Mets had taken the field; pitcher Bob Ojeda had just thrown the ball to catcher Gary Carter. The crowd of 55,000 at Shea was pumped and excited.

All of a sudden, something, or someone, came out of the sky. A man in a white jumpsuit with a parachute on his back glided into the infield.

He touched down carrying a homemade “Go Mets” banner. After scoring a high-five from Ron Darling and enthusiastic cheers from the crowd, he was escorted off the field by cops. Who was this rabid and fearless fan?

AP86102501051.jpgMichael Sergio was an actor in his 30s living in Midtown, who made the jump from a plane into the Queens nighttime sky to show his support, he told a New York Mets sports blog in 2011.

That night, he watched the Mets win the game at the police station. The next day, a judge released him on his own recognizance.

He later pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and paid a $500 fine for his spectacular descent into Shea, which is preserved forever on YouTube.

Michaelsergionydailynews

Can you imagine if this happened today? Sergio would be tackled by stadium security and federal agents and be thrown in federal prison!

“Shea under the lights was the most beautiful sight imaginable, like a crystal-green pool,” Sergio told Sports Illustrated in a 1989 article about his famous jump, which foreshadowed an incredible game and series.

RIP Shea Stadium.

[Top photo: Studious Metsimus; middle: New York Post; bottom: New York Daily News]

Waiting for word about the Titanic survivors

April 7, 2014

On the morning of April 15, 1912, at least one New York newspaper carried the grim announcement: the Titanic had sunk. What wasn’t clear for several days, though, was how great the loss of life was.

Whitestarlineofficestitanic

So anxious New Yorkers with friends and relatives aboard the unsinkable ship went down to the Bowling Green Offices Building at 9 Broadway, which housed the headquarters of the White Star Line.

Whitestarlineofficebowlinggreen

A crowd outside the building soon grew, spilling over onto the sidewalk and then across Bowling Green. At first, a White Star spokesman assured everyone that the ship was safe.

Whitestarlineofficestoday

Then wireless reports began to trickle in. But only when the Carpathia docked on the rainy night of April 18 did people really learn whether their loved ones were safe or if they had gone down with the ship.

The White Star Line is long gone, but their former headquarters remains—now home to a Subway.

Medicine ads targeting the city’s aches and pains

April 7, 2014

When these medicine trade cards were circulating around New York, surgery was in its infancy and antibiotics had yet to be invented. The average New Yorker wouldn’t have enjoyed easy access to a doctor.

Thelittlepetstradecard1

So when aches and pains and ailments struck, potions and remedies like these were there, ready to be picked up at the corner pharmacy.

Thelittlepetstradecard2

[Above: the front and back of an ad for "Scott's Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil With the Hyophosphites of Lime and Soda," for a cough]

Germantradecard1

Did they work? Without an ingredient list, it’s tough to know. But the cards are interesting to look at—a reminder that earlier generations dealt with the stomach issues, headaches, and colds that drive us to Duane Reade today.

Germantradecard2

[Above, the back and front of a trade card for a medicine sold by Charles Schneider of East 17th Street, then the upper reaches of Kleindeutschland, the city's German neighborhood. What is it for?]

Rosycheekstradecard

[Above: Alexander's Cholera Infantum Cure, made by the Alexander Medicine Co. in 14th Street and Sixth Avenue and sold by a druggist named Rosenzweig in Brooklyn, could help your kids get rosy cheeks, apparently.]

They’re part of the wonderful William H. Helfand Collection of Pharmaceutical Trade Cards in the New York Academy of Medicine Library—which has a recently renovated and reopened Rare Book Room, available to researchers by appointment at their headquarters on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

Is this the ugliest brownstone in Chelsea?

April 7, 2014

The iconic New York brownstone, with its high stoop and decorative cornice, made its appearance in the early 19th century and quickly became a stylish, single-family home favorite.

15thstreetbrownstones

Over the decades, some have been updated, their facades altered and made over to suit their owners’ tastes.

206west15thstreet

There’s this Modernist example in Turtle Bay, the concrete grill townhouse in the East 60s, and the futuristic bubble-window brownstone in the East 70s.

But what explains the refrigerator unit-like redesign of this home, part of a beautiful stretch of three-story row houses dating back to the turn of the last century?

Perhaps its super comfy inside. And a garage—that can be convenient.

Here’s the price (and photos) of the upper duplex, courtesy of a Corcoran listing.

New York City’s other Washington Bridge

March 31, 2014

There’s no scandal surrounding this lovely, smaller-scale steel-arch bridge, which links Washington Heights to the Bronx.

This postcard is undated, but it depicts a very sleepy Upper Manhattan.

Washingtonbridgepostcard

The Washington Bridge isn’t very well known and gets little love by New York residents.

But it should. It opened to pedestrians in 1888 and vehicles in 1889, making it older than its similarly named, much bigger counterpart by a good 40-odd years!

A New York socialite dubbed “King of the Dudes”

March 31, 2014

EvanderberrywallchowdogEvery era in New York history has its characters.

And in the late 19th century city, which celebrated extravagance and excess, socialite and clotheshorse Evander Berry Wall was one of the most colorful.

Born in 1860 into a wealthy family, he inherited $2 million by his 21st birthday.

That was an incredible sum in the Gilded Age, and it enabled party-loving Wall (who sported a monocle, and insisted on only drinking champagne) to not work for a living and instead indulge in his love of fashion.

Evanderberrywall1888How much of a fashionista was this guy? Reportedly he owned 500 pairs of pants, 5,000 ties, loved loud colors and patterns, and changed his clothes six times a day.

“He wore waistcoats that dazzled the eye. He wore violet spats. His spread-eagle collars and startling cravats kept New Yorkers agog,” wrote The New York Times in his 1940 obituary.

In the 1880s, he battled for the title of best-dressed New York man with another foppish dandy. Wall eclipsed the other guy during the Blizzard of 1888, when he entered the luxurious Hoffman House bar clad in thigh-high black patent leather boots.

From then on he was crowned “King of the Dudes.” Dude was kind of an insult at the time, but Wall embraced it with pride.

In 1912, he and his wife (yep, he was married) began living abroad in Europe.

EvanderberrywallmonocleHe befriended royalty, indulged his love of social events and horse racing, and took his beloved chow. wherever he could.

He’s best remembered by his outfits, of course, and as the epitome of the Gay 90s.

“To the end he was a fabulous and eccentric dresser of his earlier days—stiff shirts, tailcoats, Byron collars—and he never went to Longchamps in season without his silk hat even if, as he complained, valets no longer knew how to ‘keep the gloss on your topper,’” wrote the Times.

The only shame is that no color photos survive to really show off what a bon vivant fashion plate Wall truly was.

An anarchist bomb explodes on Lexington Avenue

March 31, 2014

Lexington103rdstreetsignIn 1914, labor leaders and anarchist groups had John D. Rockefeller Jr. in their sights.

They blamed Rockefeller, head of U.S. Steel and one of the world’s richest men, for the Ludlow massacre—the deaths of striking workers and their families at a Rockefeller-owned mine in Ludlow, Colorado in April.

LexingtonavebombAnarchist leader and New Yorker Alexander Berkman ( below), who had served time for attempting to murder industrialist Henry Frick in 1892, called for Rockefeller’s assassination.

Other anarchists and labor leaders, roughed up during a subsequent protest at Rockefeller’s Tarrytown estate, also felt that a bomb left at Rockefeller’s estate would be appropriate payback.

So out of a top-floor apartment in a tenement house on Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street, several men armed with dynamite and batteries set to work.

Alexanderberkman

On July 4—Independence Day, oddly enough—the bomb exploded prematurely, killing three anarchists, the girlfriend of one, and injuring other residents of the otherwise unremarkable tenement in working-class Italian East Harlem.

“Lexington Avenue and the thickly populated intersecting streets in the neighborhood were crowded with men, women, and children on their way to seashore or park to spend the holiday, when suddenly there was a crash like that of a broadside from a battleship,” wrote The New York Times.

“Simultaneously the roof of the tenement house at 1626 Lexington Avenue was shattered into fragments and the debris of it and the three upper floors showered over the holiday crowds, some of it falling on roofs two and three blocks away.”

Lexingtonavenuebombsite2014Four mostly mangled bodies were eventually found. The dead were IWW (International Workers of the World) leaders or followers with “anarchist leanings,” as the Times put it.

A week later, about 5,000 people came to Union Square to hear a tribute to the would-be bombers.

As officials investigated, Berkman first denied any involvement. He later admitted that he was aware that the bomb was destined for Rockefeller’s estate.

Here’s the tenement at 1626 Lexington Avenue today; its anarchist past long obscured.

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]

Paulstrandamericannyc1916

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]

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.

1970s city store signs that burst with color

March 24, 2014

Treat yourself to a Monday morning explosion of old-school color—courtesy of these New York store signs that give off a very 1970s vibe.

Acepumpsign

Ace Pump got its start in 1936, and still deals in engineering supplies on superluxe 21st Street in Chelsea.

20thcenturygaragesign

I’ve always loved the 20th Century Garage sign, as well as its name, which must have sounded very modern at one time. It’s near Tudor City on East 48th Street. It looks like it was made before the 1970s, no?

Jeromefloristsign

Jerome Florist, on 96th Street and Madison Avenue, has been selling arrangements to Upper East Siders (and the area’s abundance of hospitals) since 1929.

Capitalelectronicssign

Once known as Capital Audio & Electronics, this Duane Street shop took the electronics out of its name, perhaps to sound less 1970s-ish.

Vernonavepharmacysign

Pharmacy signs like this one in Queens—no-frills, no brand names, with a neighborhood vibe—have mostly disappeared from city streets.


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