The Wild West street names once proposed for the Upper West Side

July 25, 2022

Edward Clark, a lawyer by trade, made a fortune in the mid-19th century as one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. With that fortune, Clark launched a second career as a New York City real estate investor and developer.

Matthew Dripps/Valentine’s Manual 1865

In 1880, he and architect Henry Hardenbergh (later of Plaza Hotel fame), were ready to start construction on a Victorian Gothic apartment building. The luxury residence was set to rise on land Clark purchased at 72nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Today, Eighth Avenue is famously known as Central Park West, but in the Gilded Age it was still a mostly undeveloped thoroughfare bordering the west side of Central Park.

When Clark’s building was completed in 1884, it would be called the Dakota and celebrated for its beauty and grandeur. But before that, it was dubbed “Clark’s folly,” because the idea of putting up a spectacular residence in the slow-to-urbanize Upper West Side was considered ridiculous.

The Dakota, aka Clark’s Folly, on Eighth Avenue post-construction

Still, Clark was nothing if not a risk taker. He had a vision for what the “West End” should become and what its new avenues should be called. And he had no qualms about bringing his vision to the West End Association, the group tasked with ensuring that the area developed into a high-class district of fine homes and suitable businesses.

“In 1880, The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on a meeting of the West End Association, as it examined the future of what was thought to be the area’s most impressive boulevard, then known as Eighth Avenue but now called Central Park West,” recounted Christopher Gray in a 2007 New York Times article.

“Most of the people at the meeting favored renaming it West Central Park, but Edward Clark, then at least six months away from starting work on the Dakota, was opposed. He said he thought the avenues should be named ‘after such of the states as have well-sounding names,'” wrote Gray.

Edward Cabot Clark in 1850

What avenue names did Clark propose? He suggested the very frontier-focused “Montana Place for Eighth Avenue, Wyoming Place for Ninth Avenue, Arizona Place for Tenth Avenue, and Idaho Place for Eleventh Avenue,” stated author Deirdre Mask in 2020’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.

The West End Association ignored Clark’s suggestions. In 1893, Eighth Avenue officially became Central Park West. In 1890, Ninth Avenue was changed to Columbus Avenue, and Tenth Avenue turned into Amsterdam Avenue. (Riverside Drive and West End Avenue already had been named, and Broadway would replace the Boulevard by the end of the century.)

Why did the planners in charge of urbanizing the Upper West Side nix the numbered avenues in favor of more descriptive street names?

“Part of the rationale was that new names would distinguish the haut-bourgeois West Side from the lower part of the city through which the numbered avenues ran, particularly the undistinguished factories, flats and tenements of the West 30s, 40s and 50s,” wrote Gray.

More than a century has passed since all of the naming and renaming, and it seems that the Upper West Side’s six major avenues are set in stone.

[Top image: raremaps.com; second image: Office for Metropolitan History via The New Republic; third image: Wikipedia]

A midcentury painter’s magical nocturne of the Brooklyn Bridge

July 22, 2022

“Brooklyn Bridge” is a curiously plain title for a painting that shrouds much of the bridge, the river, and the piers around it in a Turner-esque swirl of industrial smoke, thick clouds, and the blue glow of dusk or dawn.

Light illuminates small pockets surrounding the bridge’s iconic towers: a tugboat’s smokestack, a wood building on an empty pier, and a retreating human figure turned away from the East River.

The painter is Frank Mason, an artist of many landscapes, seascapes, and portraits who studied at the Art Students League, where he later taught. “Brooklyn Bridge” was painted in 1950, a pivotal year for the bridge, when trolley service crossing back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn was discontinued.

Mason’s primary interest probably isn’t the Bridge’s historical timeline. He seems captivated by the light and color at a certain time of night, and it’s easy to understand why. His evocative nocturne becomes more enchanting every time to you view it.

[Image: frankmason.org]

A writer recalls “the beauty of it all” after a visit to 1890s Manhattan Beach

July 22, 2022

During summer in the early 1890s, a huge electric sign dominated the side of the St. Germain Hotel, at Broadway and 22nd Street. The St. Germain stood on the sliver of land that would be home to the Flatiron building less than a decade later. But at that time, nothing obstructed the ad—which faced the fashionable hotels, streetcar lines, and shopping emporiums of Madison Square.

The sign’s flashing colored lights advertised the pleasures of Manhattan Beach, one of Brooklyn’s seaside resorts created in the 1870s. “Swept by Ocean Breezes,” the ad blazed several stories in the air. A list of attractions—the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels, “Sousa’s Band,” and “Pains Fireworks”—lit up the New York night.

The electric sign hoped to lure sweltering city residents to this middle class resort, a more genteel version of Coney Island on the same Brooklyn peninsula. But it also captivated Theodore Dreiser, who was new in New York City after a stint as a journalist in the Midwest.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel, 1900

By 1900, Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, his first novel, and establish himself as a leading American author. Now, he was an anonymous observer without means, struggling to make a living writing for New York’s newspapers while living in shabby rooms in Greenwich Village.

“Walking up or down Broadway of a hot summer night, this sign was an inspiration and an invitation,” Dreiser recalled in The Color of a Great City, his collection of vignettes about life in Gotham before and after the turn of the 20th century. “I had heard as much about Atlantic City and Coney Island, but this blazing sign lifted Manhattan Beach into rivalry with fairyland.”

Theodore Dreiser, around 1900

So one Sunday, Dreiser and his brother headed to Manhattan Beach. The two took the 34th Street ferry, which brought the “seaward-moving throng” to a railroad connection in Long Island City and then to the beach.

“The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation,” he wrote. “Indeed, 34th Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows.”

“The clerk and his prettiest girl, the actress and her admirer, the actor and his playmate, brokers, small and exclusive tradesmen, men of obvious political or commercial position, their wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, all were outbound toward this much above average resort.”

At Manhattan Beach, Dreiser was awestruck. He marveled at the “great hotels, held and contained all summer long all that was best and most leisurely and pleasure-loving in New York’s great middle class of that day….”

Oriental Hotel, 1903

His attention to detail served him well when describing what the male guests wore. “I never saw so many prosperous-looking people in one place, more with better and smarter clothes, even though they were a little showy. The straw hat with its blue or striped ribbon, the flannel suit with its accompanying white shoes, light cane, the pearl-gray derby, the check suit, the diamond and pearl pin in necktie, the silk shirt. What a cool, summery, airy-fairy realm!”

The women in bathing outfits impressed him as well. “It seemed to me that the fabled days of the Greeks had returned. These were nymphs, nereids, sirens in truth. Old Triton might well have raised his head above the blue waves and sounded his spiral horn.”

Guests strolling beside the beach, 1895

When Dreiser had moved to Manhattan, he was caught off guard by the great riches of the upper classes and the deep poverty of the poor—conditions that had become more or less accepted by Gilded Age residents. He brought a sensitivity to class struggles in his writings about Manhattan Beach, as he observed the thousands of finely dressed guests enjoying dining room feasts, music pavilions, rocking chairs on the verandas, and the nightly fireworks over the beach.

“The wealth, as I saw it then, that permitted this!”

He was also struck by the resort’s flimsy beauty. “But the beauty of it all, the wonder, the airy, insubstantial, almost transparent quality of it all! Never before had I seen the sea, and here it was before me, a great, blue, rocking floor, its distant horizon dotted with white sails and the smoke of but faintly visible steamers dissolving in the clear air above them….And as dusk came on, the lights of the lighthouses, and later the glimmer of the stars above the water, added an impressive and to me melancholy quality to it all. It was so insubstantial and yet so beautiful.”

Diving into the water with the Oriental Hotel in the background, 1897

His visit to Manhattan Beach that day in the early 1890s ended. Twenty-five years later, Dreiser wrote that he went back to the site of the once-fabled resort.

“But of that old, sweet, fair, summery life not a trace,” he stated. “Gone were the great hotels, the wall, the flowers, the parklike nature of the scene. In 25 years the beautiful circular pavilion had fallen into the sea and a part of the grounds of the great Manhattan Hotel had been eaten away by winter storms….Even the great Oriental, hanging on for a few years and struggling to accommodate itself to new conditions, had been torn down.”

A family takes to the sand in bathing suits armed with an umbrella

Open since the 1870s, the Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, according to heartofconeyisland.com. The Oriental Hotel, hosting guests since 1880, met the wrecking ball in 1916. Manhattan Beach the resort was over, but Manhattan Beach the neighborhood was seized by developers, who built homes and sidewalks. Manhattan Beach Park, a small beach, continues to be open to the public.

“Only the beach remained, and even that was changed with new conditions,” Dreiser wrote, explaining the newly planted trees along divided new streets, “sold to those who craved the freshness of this seaside isle.”

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, 1887, MNY111867; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY, MNY62849; seventh image: MCNY, MNY62850; eighth image: MCNY, MNY62854]

An Upper West Side apartment house’s facade of flowers

July 18, 2022

The 18-story brick apartment residence at 40 West 86th Street was designed by J.M. Felson, and like so many prewar buildings in New York City, it’s a study in classic, if understated, elegance.

But this seemingly staid apartment house has something that gives it a little sparkle. Spread out on the facade of the lower floors are colorful terra cotta florals. The bright green hues, the curlicues of the petals—these panels are the perfect motifs for a lush, humid New York summer.

The Lower East Side’s Mechanics Alley is one of the last true alleys in Manhattan

July 18, 2022

In the Hollywood-inspired imaginations of people who don’t live here, New York City is a place with shadowy alleys around every corner where danger lurks.

Though the city past and present certainly has its dark pockets and little-traveled lanes, Gotham never really had many alleys, even in its earliest days. The creators of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan, which laid out the street grid, wisely knew that real estate would be too valuable to intentionally leave undeveloped.

Some 18th and early 19th century alleys became true streets, others got wiped off the map. A few continue to exist. I’m a fan of Theater Alley, beside Park Row near City Hall, was once home to Manhattan’s theater district. Three-block Cortlandt Alley makes for an evocative cut-through from Franklin Street to Canal Street.

Mechanics Alley in 1850

Then there’s Mechanics Alley. In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge approach and flanked by exhausted tenements and squat commercial spaces, this mostly abandoned strip of rough asphalt used to run from Cherry Street to Monroe Street, according to the 1850 street map above.

Today, it reaches three full blocks to Henry Street between Market and Pike Streets. Though it tripled its size by subsuming another now-forgotten lane a few blocks up, Mechanics Alley is about as marginalized as a street can get. It’s possible to walk up and down it several times in the middle of the day and not spot another human.

The lack of foot traffic makes sense in this patch of Lower East Side. Stuck between two bridges and steps from the East River, it’s no longer a densely populated part of Manhattan. But how did Mechanics Alley come to be in the busy post-colonial city, when this neighborhood was teeming with people? How did it get its name, which suggests cars and garages?

It all has to do with the waterfront. In the late 18th century, shipbuilding yards “covered the waterfront all the way to Corlears Hook, attracting carpenters, smiths, shipwrights, coopers, chandlers, joiners, sail makers and rope makers,” stated reporter Daniel Schneider in a 2000 New York Times column.  

According to Schneider, Mechanics Alley began appearing on maps in the early 19th century. At the time, these and other artisans and craftsmen were called mechanics, he wrote. “New York was one of many American cities to have a Mechanics Row, Alley, or Place near the waterfront, usually where ships were built and repaired,” he explained.

Sure enough, Manhattan had another Mechanics Alley—actually Mechanics Place—which spanned second and third streets on the east side of Avenue A, per Valentine’s Manual of Old New York in 1922.

Avenue A wasn’t exactly on the waterfront. But this main street in today’s East Village was close enough to what used to be called the Dry Dock District, a 19th century center of shipbuilding along the East River where thousands of dockworkers, shipbuilders, and mechanics once lived and worked.

A second Mechanics Place existed off Rivington Street between the now-demapped Lewis and Goerck Streets, states oldstreets.com.

Another author advanced a different idea of how this alley got its name. “Though no documentation exists for the name of this short alley, it may be associated with the early history of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen,” wrote Sanna Feirstein in Naming New York: Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names.

“Formerly founded in 1785 and still in existence today, the Society’s original mission was to advance and protect the political and economic interests of American craftsmen,” explained Feirstein. “Though their first meeting hall was at Broadway and Park Place, they owned land in the Chatham Square area, giving rise to the speculation that their organization may be the basis for this alley’s name.”

An 1882 sketch of a bell tower on the East River, which tolled at the beginning and end of a mechanic’s workday

The mechanics may be gone, along with the riverfront industries that relied on their skills. Their organizations have moved away as well; the General Society occupies a beautiful building on 44th Street.

But ghostly Mechanics Alley, marked up with graffiti and mostly hidden beside a bridge approach, is a monument to the tradesmen and craftsmen who helped build the modern city.

[Second image: NYPL Digital Collections; sixth image: LOC]

A live connection to James Madison stands tall in Madison Square Park

July 18, 2022

For a founding father from Virginia, there’s a lot of James Madison in New York City. Madison Square was named for him in 1814, when the Square was a former potter’s field turned military parade ground and Madison was serving his second term as U.S. president.

Madison Street, on the Lower East Side, got its name in 1826, and Madison Avenue opened in 1836, the year this writer, legislator, and statesman died.

Madison Square evolved into Madison Square Park, and this patch of green separating the Flatiron District from Murray Hill no longer seems to acknowledge Madison the man.

But obscured among the greenery on the east side of the park is a mighty red oak tree with a direct connection to the nation’s fourth commander-in-chief.

The red oak came to the park from Madison’s estate in Virginia, Montpelier. In 1936, the tree was transplanted as a sapling by a group of businessmen to commemorate the centennial of the opening of Madison Avenue to the east of the park.

The small, almost hidden plaque in front of the towering tree says it all, adding that it was brought and planted here by the Fifth Avenue Association, an organization that still exists.

Madison Square Park has more 300 trees of a variety of species, according to the Madison Square Park Conservancy—from red maples to ginkgos to magnolias. All are lovely and bring beauty to this popular space. But only one, still young at about 90 years old, stands as a direct connection to the man the park is named for.

[Third image: whitehouse.gov]

The geometric stillness in a Precisionist painter’s view near Avenue A

July 14, 2022

Niles Spencer was a Rhode Island-born painter who moved to New York City in 1916. “The lively intellectual milieu of Greenwich Village was in its heyday, and Spencer was exposed to many of the radical theoreticians and personalities of the time, who encouraged him to begin working in new directions,” stated New York City’s Forum Gallery.

“Deeply influenced by Cézanne’s faceted explorations of landscape and still life, Spencer’s paintings began to focus on the geometry of architectural shapes and how they related to their landscape.”

The painting above, “Near Avenue A,” was completed in 1933. The scene reduces what looks like a view from the old Gas House District (where Stuyvesant Town is today) to a “spare dynamic, architectonic composition” per the Forum Gallery.

Spencer is often grouped as a Precisionist painter, a style that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. (George Copeland Ault is another Precisionist whose work can be seen here.) “Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the machine and industry as an exaltation of the dynamism of the future,” wrote the Forum Gallery.

“Near Avenue A” is at the Museum of Modern Art. It captures a scene that’s hard to recognize in the Manhattan of today—but the round gas storage tank in the background places it on the East Side of the 1930s.

The first roller coaster in America was at Coney Island

July 14, 2022

During its golden era around the turn of the last century, Coney Island was a roller coaster pioneer—from the Flip-Flap Railway in the 1890s to the Loop-the-Loop in 1901 to the Giant Racer in 1911. (The Cyclone was a latecomer when it replaced the Giant Racer in 1927, according to ultimaterollercoaster.com.)

But even before these coasters thrilled visitors, Coney Island was home to a ride that’s considered to be the first roller coaster in the United States: the “Switchback Railway.” How wild was it? By contemporary roller coaster standards, it sounds pretty tame.

“Passengers rode a train on undulating tracks over a wooden structure 600 feet long,” explains Westland.net. “The train started at a height of 50 feet on one end and ran downhill by gravity until its momentum died. Passengers then left the train and attendants pushed the car over a switch to a higher level. The passengers returned to their sideways facing seats and rode back to the original starting point.”

Clearly it doesn’t compare to the Cyclone’s 85-foot plunge. But then again, it wasn’t intended to generate adrenaline-pumping excitement. “It wasn’t supposed to be a thrill ride, just a tour of the beach, with people sitting sideways for the best view,” stated Robert Cartmell, described as an expert of roller coasters and author of “The Roller Coaster Book” in the June 17, 1984 edition of Newsday.

The Switchback Railway was an immediate hit, according to Cartmell, and it made tons of money for La Marcus Thompson, the man who built it. (Thompson charged five cents per ride.) Yet within months, it was closed for good—a victim of its own success.

“Someone got the bright idea of facing the seats forward and turning it into a thrill ride,” stated Cartmell. “They opened better rides down the street, and they built the track in a loop and added an engine to pull the cars back to the top.”

For a brief moment in time, the Switchback was the most exciting ride at Coney.

[Top image: Granger; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY x2011.34.2098; fourth image: MCNY x2011.34.2091]

A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story

July 14, 2022

Amid the fortune making and social swirling of New York’s Gilded Age, more than 12 million immigrants came to the United States. Seventy percent of those newcomers took their first steps on American soil via Castle Garden or Ellis Island, Gotham’s two immigration processing depots.

In the early 1900s, Sadie Frowne was one of these new arrivals. A few years later, this 16-year-old’s story of surviving in New York—”The Life Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl”—made it into a fascinating 1906 book called The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

The broad strokes of Sadie’s story are not unlike those of other poor immigrants, left to find their way in a chaotic, unwelcoming city desperate for their labor. What sets her experience apart are the details she reveals: the smell of the steamship across the Atlantic, the budgeting she did on the Lower East Side to save her meager earnings, and the friendships and love she found to replace her family.

Immigrant women at Ellis Island, 1910

Sadie begins her tale in a Polish village in the late 19th century. Her parents operated a small grocery shop, and they also “worked in the fields,” using two back rooms of the store as their home.

When she was 10, she lost her father. “After he died troubles began, for the rent of our shop was about $6 a month and then there were food and clothes to provide,” said Sadie. “We needed little, it is true, but even soup, black bread, and onion we could not always get.”

Sadie’s mother, who she describes as “a tall, handsome, dark-complexioned woman with red cheeks” and was “much looked up to by the people, who used to come and asked her for advice,” thought she and her daughter should try their luck in America, “where we heard it was much easier to make money.”

Arriving in New York Harbor

An aunt who lived in New York “took up a subscription” among friends and relatives so the two would have the money for passage.

“We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully,” said Sadie. Twelve harrowing days later, “at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.”

After being fetched by her aunt (likely at Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and replaced Castle Garden), Sadie found a position as a servant. “I was only a little over thirteen years of age and a greenhorn, so I received $9 a month in board and lodging, which I thought was doing well.” Sadie’s mother started work at a factory “making white goods,” or undergarments, at $9 a week.

Mr. Goldstein’s sweatshop, 30 Suffolk Street in 1908

Sadie describes her mother as a lively woman who wanted to see the sights in New York. But that led her to contract “hasty consumption”—a virulent strain of tuberculosis. “Two doctors attended to her, but they could do nothing, and at last she died, and I was left alone,” stated Sadie.

This teenager’s survival instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” She sewed six days a week and pocketed $4 per payday.

Sadie and another sweatshop girl, Ella, shared a room on Allen Street, which cost them $1.50 a week. The arrangement worked, and by budgeting the cost of food carefully, they saved money. “It cost me $2 a week to live, and I had a dollar a week to spend on clothing and pleasure, and saved the other dollar. I went to night school, but it was hard work learning at first as I did not know much English.”

After two years in the Allen Street room—which had a dirty, noisy elevated train overhead—Sadie moved to Brownsville, which the book describes as “the Jewish sweatshop district of Brooklyn.” Her new job, at a factory that manufactured underskirts, paid her $4.50 a week, and then $5.50.

Her workday started at 7 in the morning and ran to 6 at night. “The machines go like mad all day, because the faster you work the more money you get,” she said. “All the time we are working the boss walks about examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right.”

Some male employees harassed her, touching her hair and making jokes. But one man, Henry, defended her, and he became her sweetheart. “Henry has seen me home every night for a long time and makes love to me. He wants me to marry him, but I am not 17 yet, and I think that is too young. He is only 19, so we can wait.”

At the end of the workday and on her Sundays off, Sadie believed that “you must go out and get air, have pleasure.” She and Henry go to Coney Island’s dance halls, or Ulmer Park—a Coney beer garden. She also enjoys theater and reading romance novels. “I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don’t go out with anyone except Henry.”

Toward the end of her story, Sadie stated that her workplace recently went on strike, with the backing of her union. “We struck for shorter hours, and after being out four weeks won the fight. We only have to work nine and a half hours a day and we get the same pay as before….The next strike is going to be for a raise of wages, which we all ought to have.”

“So the union does good after all in spite of what some people say against it—that it just takes our money and does nothing. But though I belong to the union I am not a Socialist or Anarchist. I don’t know exactly what these things mean.”

Sadie’s story ends here, on the brink of marriage and foreshadowing a decade of social change for the thousands of sweatshop and factory workers like herself. What could have become of this plucky, pleasure-loving, sensible girl? I bet she had a rich, fulfilling American life.

Here’s another story of a young immigrant girl arriving in New York City in the Gilded Age, per The Lives of Undistinguished Americans.

[Top photo: Lewis Hine/NYPL Digital Collections; second photo: Bain Collection/LOC; third image: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper; fourth photo: Lewis Hine/LOC; fifth image: The Lives of Undistinguished Americans; sixth image: NYPL Digital Collections; seventh image: Bain Collection/LOC]

Where life in New York City was lived “on the steps”

July 11, 2022

Between the cramped spaces, poor ventilation, and shadowy hallways, life inside a New York City tenement could be hard to bear, especially in warm weather. For relief, people headed to their outside steps: men buried themselves in the newspaper, women rocked babies, small kids played games. In a pre-air conditioned city, front stoops were lively places.

It’s unclear exactly where Ashcan painter George Luks captured this scene outside a rundown building. But he appropriately named the painting “On the Steps”—where much of life played out in New York’s tenement districts.