The beauty and magic of New York City on skates

January 5, 2017

What is it about skating that captivated so many New York City illustrators and painters during the 19th and early 20th centuries?

[Below, “Skating in Central Park,” 1910]

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It could be the challenge of capturing the motions of skating, the gliding or rolling skaters do, kind of an unchoreographed dance even the clumsiest person can master.

Or perhaps in the case of ice skating, artists can’t resist the glorious winter colors that frame New York’s frozen ponds and lakes.

[“Skaters, Central Park,” 1912]

glackensiceskatingcentralpark

Skating might also have been seen as a little risque. During the Gilded Age, ice skating was one of the few social activities men and women could do together without upsetting the boundaries of the era’s gender-specific spheres.

[“Roller Skating Rink,” 1906]

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Ashcan School artist William Glackens painted these three images of New Yorkers on skates. He may have simply enjoyed depicting spirited scenes of day-to-day life in the city where he lived and worked (his studio was on Ninth Street off Fifth Avenue).

The roller skating rink painting, however, stems from an actual trip to a city rink Glackens made with Robert Henri and other Ashcan painters.

“The hilarious evening, in which Glackens was the first to fall, encapsulates the artist’s fascination with the modern city and its popular attractions,” wrote the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has this work in its collection.

Bare trees and orange-brown hills in Central Park

January 2, 2017

Leon Kroll’s “Scene in Central Park” gives viewers the park as he saw it in 1922. It must be winter, or close to it: the landscape is all orange and brown and green amid bare trees.

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Now the question is, which bridge is this. Gapstow over the lake?

Who passed through Ellis Island a century ago

January 2, 2017

ellisislanddutchwomenOn January 1, 1892, seven hundred immigrants from three ships waited in New York Harbor to board barges that would take them to Ellis Island.

These newcomers were the first to be processed at the brand-new, federal government-run facility, where a total of 12 million immigrants over 62 years were registered and then given medical and legal checks before being allowed onto the mainland.

(This was only for third-class passengers, of course—those in first and second class were given a quick inspection on the ship, then allowed to proceed to New York City.)

ellisislandgreeksoliderAfter arriving at Ellis Island, immigrants spent an average of two to five hours before getting the go-ahead to embark on a new life in the United States.

Two percent, however, were turned back across the pond for a variety of reasons: bad health, mental issues, anti-American sentiment.

Capturing the faces of many of these new arrivals in their native dress was chief registry clerk Augustus Sherman, who was also an amateur photographer.

Sherman took about 250 photos of people he encountered between 1905 and the 1920s.

ellisislandromanianshepherd“The people in the photographs were most likely detainees who were waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island,” stated The Public Domain Review.

Sherman took the photos for his own enjoyment. “Augustus Sherman was fascinated by where the immigrants were coming from and their traditional clothing,” states the National Park Service.

“He usually photographed immigrants that were detained briefly and used mostly dull backgrounds so the immigrants themselves were the main focus.”

ellisislanditalianwoman“Though originally taken for his own personal study, Sherman’s work appeared in the public eye as illustrations for publications with titles such as ‘Alien or American,’ and hung on the walls of the custom offices as cautionary or exemplary models of the new American species,” explained a summary of a book that collected Sherman’s Ellis Islands photos.

Regardless of how they were used a century ago, these photos are incredible portraits of what some of the people who made it to Ellis Island looked like.

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Dressed in folk outfits from their native countries, they have unsmiling yet hopeful faces.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFor more about what it was like to arrive in New York City as an immigrant in the 19th and early 20th centuries—first at Castle Garden, then at Ellis Island—check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Countries of origin: 1. The Netherlands; 2. Greece; 3. Romania; 4. Italy; 5. “Hindu” is how the boy is described]

What Tudor City tells us about an older East Side

January 2, 2017

When ground broke for Tudor City in the 1920s, the idea was to create a modern and pretty mini-city at the foot of a rocky projection at 42nd Street known in Revolutionary War times as Prospect Hill.

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But before they could build apartment towers and gardens, the developers had to do something about the unsavory occupants of this far East Side neighborhood—a former 19th century gang hideout called Corcoran’s Roost (also known as Dutch Hill) and even then a major Manhattan industrial zone.

tudorcityad“The view of even 75 years ago is no more,” stated the New York Times in a 1926 article about Tudor City and the area’s history. “Swaying tree tops made way for factory roofs with their black smoking chimneys.”

“Seventy feet below the crest of the hill, running parallel with the river and lying directly under the overhanging cliff, is First Avenue with its lumber and coal yards, its slaughter and packing houses, its poor dwelling places, and with the great Edison power plant occupying four blocks of the waterfront.”

By the time the first apartment houses of a scaled-down Tudor City opened—with all the decorative bells and whistles of the English Tudor era, which was fashionable at the time—developers had bulldozed blocks of rowhouse slums.

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But there wasn’t much they could do immediately about the factories and power plant along the river below.

The solution? Construct attractive apartment towers that turn their backs on the waterfront, literally.

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Only very small apartment windows in Tudor City’s residential buildings open onto the East River. This way, the well-heeled residents wouldn’t be put off by the noise and stench of industry.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1935, X2010.7.2.6334; third photo: unknown]

Happy 1969 from a Diamond District drugstore

December 30, 2016

For decades, Jack May’s was a standard Manhattan neighborhood pharmacy on 48th Street in the middle of the Diamond District (PLaza 7!).

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The store had customer service in mind when they printed up this handy calendar covering all 12 months of 1969.

Of course, it worked as a bookmark too—it was found inside a crumbling Dostoyevsky paperback. My guess is that the pharmacist was reading it between filling prescriptions.

An ode to the original Second Avenue subway

December 30, 2016

True, it wasn’t actually a subway. The steel road bed of the Second Avenue Elevated put belching trains two stories in the air from Chatham Square downtown to 127th Street.

But this lurching, unglamorous el, as it was called, was Second Avenue’s very own rapid train from 1880 to 1942.

It was a latecomer as far as els go. The Ninth Avenue line opened in 1868, while the Sixth Avenue and Third Avenue els were up and running in the 1870s.

secondavenueel125thstreetnyplNew Yorkers welcomed this el, which made the trip from City Hall to 59th Street in just 28 minutes, half the time it took via a horse-pulled, jam-packed streetcar.

But it had drawbacks. Loud and gritty, the train ran day and night, raining ash on pedestrians and blocking out the sun.

Still, the Second Avenue el helped colonize the northern reaches of Manhattan, transporting residents from crowded downtown slums to newer housing in areas such as Yorkville and Harlem.

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Unlike the Sixth Avenue El, which was memorialized by poets and depicted by painters, the Second Avenue line didn’t get much love.

It did earn a gritty, gangland rep: Under its tracks at Allen and Rivington Streets in September 1903, the Five Points Gang and Monk Eastman’s Gang drew their guns and duked it out in a deadly turf battle.

Through its 62 years, the Second Avenue el saw lots of changes. Powered by steam early on, the tracks were electrified around 1900. Ridership dropped when faster, more convenient subways arrived.

The city took the el over in 1940, and the end came in 1942. Miles of tracks were cleared away and the steel girders removed, making way for sunlight again.

Now, the first leg of the Second Avenue subway is opening January 1. Think about the old el and how it shaped the East Side of Manhattan when you take a ride from one of the sleek new stations.

[Top photo: Wikipedia; second photo: MCNY, 1939, X2010.7.1.1789; third image: The Third Rail; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: YouTube]

Why 1970s New York was nicknamed “Fun City”

December 30, 2016

New York City has had some colorful nicknames over the years—from Gotham and the Empire City in the 19th century to the Big Apple in the 1920s jazz era.

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But the “Fun City” moniker of the 1960s and 1970s?

The term was supposed to be a joke, a take on a phrase used by Mayor John Lindsay during a 1966 interview with sports journalist Dick Schaap, who was then a metro columnist with the New York Herald Tribune.

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“Soon after the city was crippled by a transit strike on Mayor John V. Lindsay’s first day in office in 1966, Mr. Lindsay was asked if he was still happy to be the mayor,” wrote the New York Times in Schaap’s obituary in 2001, recounting how the nickname was coined.

funcityplaybill1972Lindsay responded, “I still think it’s a fun city.”

Schaap put the term in his column, using it “as an affectionate, if snide, gibe at the overwhelmed city,” stated the Times.

The phrase caught on with New Yorkers, who were unimpressed with the new mayor’s upbeat tone in a metropolis that over the next four years would endure a sanitation strike, a teacher walkout, a crippling blackout, and increasing financial distress.

Soon, the nickname was emblazoned on Times Square strip club marquees, city bus ads, and even on Broadway, where a short-lived play starring Joan Rivers debuted in 1972 (and closed a week later).

The term has mostly disappeared today—though a few critics dubbed Mayor Bloomberg’s New York of the early 2000s the “no-fun city.”

mays

But we still have Fun City Tattooing on St. Marks Place near Avenue A, going strong since the height of the Fun City era in 1976!

[Second photo: Fun City Peep Shows circa 1988: Michael Horsley/Flickr; third photo: playbill.com; fourth photo: unknown source]

The bums and barflies on a 10th Avenue corner

December 27, 2016

“Well-bred people are no fun to paint,” Reginald Marsh once reportedly said.

reginaldmarsh10thave27thstreet1931

Known for his exaggerated, carnival-like paintings of crowds of showgirls, shoppers, and Coney Island beach-goers, Marsh was deeply taken by the forgotten men of 1930s New York—casualties of the Depression who gathered at bars and on breadlines.

reginaldmarshcorner2016His 1931 etching, “Tenth Avenue at 27th Street,” gives us a detailed look at a crowd of anonymous men lined up along the side of a shadowy saloon in a rough-edged neighborhood.

The men either look away, leaning against the bar like it’s a lifeboat, or leer at a lone woman.

Hmm . . . what would Marsh think of this same corner 86 years later, with the High Line and art galleries drawing the well-bred people who never made it into his sketchbook?

[Second image: Google]

Peek into a travel diary of colonial New York

December 27, 2016

sarahkembleknightNew York in 1704 was barely a city at all.

Under British rule for only 40 years, about 5,000 people called it home. Not much existed past Maiden Lane. Industry focused on the harbor. The original Trinity Church had just been built. Yellow fever was epidemic.

And in autumn of that year a boardinghouse keeper named Sarah Kemble Knight (at left) set out on horseback from her hometown of Boston to journey to Manhattan and back, helping a friend handle legal issues.

Traveling via horse through colonial New England’s primitive roads and bunking in public houses would be rough for anyone, let alone a 38-year-old woman (she did have the help of a guide).

sarahkembleknightnyc1695

But what makes the trip extraordinary is that Knight kept a journal, which was published as a book in 1825.

“The Cittie of New York is a pleasant well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River [which] is a fine harbor for shipping,” Knight wrote on her arrival in December 1704.

sarahkembleknighthouses1700She only stayed in the city for a “fortnight”—two weeks. Yet some of her impressions of New York as a place of fashion, stately houses, flowing alcohol, and high-speed fun might sound familiar.

“[New Yorkers] are not strict in keeping the Sabbath as in Boston and other places where I had bin,” she writes. “They are sociable to one another and courteous and civill to strangers and fare well in their houses.”

“The English go very fasheonable in their dress. [But] the Dutch, especially the middling sort, differ from our women, in their habitt go loose. . . .” Knight says, explaining that the Dutch women wear a caplike headband that leaves their ears sticking out “which are sett out with jewels [with] jewells of a large size and many in number.”

sarahnyin1700Dutch women also have fingers “hoop’t with rings.”

New Yorkers are great entertainers, she says, and taverns “treat with good liquor liberally, and the customers drink as liberally and generally pay for’t as well….”

The 18th century city knew how to have a good time. “Their diversions in the winter is riding sleys about three or four miles out of town,” Knight writes, “where they have houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends houses who handsomely treat them.”

sarahfrauncestavernnyplWhile out with friends, “I believe we mett 50 or 60 sleys that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’d turn out of the path for none except a loaden cart.”

Sounds like modern city traffic and bad taxi drivers!

[Top image: National Women’s History Museum; second image: New York in 1695; NYC Tourist; third image: NYC in 1700, Wikipedia; fourth image: Fraunces Tavern, built by Samuel DeLancey in 1719 on Pearl and Broad Streets; NYPL]

Times Square before it became Times Square

December 27, 2016

Here’s a look at Times Square in 1900, seven years before the neighborhood became famous for the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop—and in fact, before it was even called Times Square.

longacresquare1900mcny93-1-1-17932

At the time, the nexus of avenues that would soon be dubbed the Crossroads of the World was known as Longacre Square, the sleepy center of the city’s carriage industry.

By the turn of the 20th century, New York’s theater district had edged up against the area—see the burlesque house on the left. In four years, the New York Times would relocate to that spot in the center of the card.

And starting in 1907, New Year’s Eve in New York would never be the same.

[Photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17932]