The blue glow of the Flatiron Building at twilight

October 22, 2018

When the Flatiron Building opened in 1902, this graceful steel-frame skyscraper was a symbol of 20th century urban power and progress.

Two years later, pioneering photographer Edward Steichen created this photo of the Flatiron. He gave the image a blue glow during printing to make it evocative of twilight. And with the tree branches and puddles of rain in the foreground, he juxtaposed the made-made tower with powerful elements of the natural world.

“Steichen may have been drawing on his knowledge of Japanese prints, in which similar natural and built features exist harmoniously,” states this Middlebury College Museum of Art page. Japanese woodblock prints were all the rage at the time.

[Photo: Metmuseum]

A Midtown bar that still has a wood phone booth

October 22, 2018

Beer has been flowing at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue and 55th Street since Chester Arthur was president.

And while the place looks spiffier than it has in recent years, it’s still one of those old-school saloons that kept its Gilded Age decor, like stained glass, amber lights, and a pressed tin ceiling.

There’s another old New York relic P.J. Clarke’s appears to have held onto: the bar’s wooden phone booth.

Way back in the dinosaur era of payphones, every public place had one: a phone booth with a hinged door and small stool a person would tuck themselves into to make their call out of earshot.

While the phone itself and the seat are no longer in the booth at P.J.’s, the booth itself is still there  beside the end of the bar—only now it’s used to store glasses and napkins.

Not convinced that this casket-like space was a phone booth? Check out how similar its shape is to these, spotted at the Park Avenue Armory in 2010, and this one, at Bill’s on 54th Street, ID’d in 2015.

What remains of an 1881 bank at Mulberry Bend

October 22, 2018

I’ve always been curious about the formidable entrance of this ordinary brick building at Mulberry and Mosco Streets in Chinatown.

This corner has an illustrious past. For much of the 19th century it was a particularly dicey part of the old Five Points slum known as Mulberry Bend (below, at the point where this former cow path literally bends).

By the turn of the 20th century it was a central part of the teeming “Italian Colony,” as some called it, aka Little Italy.

The building entrance is designed to communicate strength and power: marble columns, terra cotta ornamentation, steps that elevate visitors above the sidewalk, all topped by a mean-looking eagle with wings spread, ready to take flight.

What was this Greek temple–like entrance for, exactly? A bank.

Number 28 Mulberry was once the doorway for the Banco Italia, which in 1881 served the growing Italian immigrant community pouring into Mulberry Bend.

The founder was Antonio Cuneo (left), who arrived in the New York in the 1850s. (In the above photo with the oyster vendor, 28 Mulberry can be seen without its decked-out entrance.)

Cuneo made his money first by selling nuts and fruits from a pushcart, operating a grocery store and fruit importing concern that made him the city’s “banana king,” then buying up real estate.

Though Banco Italia’s showstopping doorway may have convinced many newcomers to open accounts there, Cuneo was something of a shady character.

“In 1887, a United States Congressional investigation found that the bank operated under a padrone system, a labor arrangement where the bank, for a fee, operated an agency in Naples that coordinated prepaid steamer tickets and requests for underpaid labor,” states The Big Onion Guide to Historic New York City.

This didn’t diminish Cuneo in the eyes of his community. When he died in 1896, hundreds packed St. Gioacchino’s Church on Roosevelt Street. An overflow crowd of mourners on the street was so large, a police detail was brought in.

The bank now houses a funeral home, and the ornate entrance seems strangely appropriate.

[Second photo: NYPL; fourth photo: NYPL;

A motorized fire engine draws a crowd in 1910

October 15, 2018

“New motor propelled fire engine” reads the caption of this 1910 postcard, which shows off what appears to be the Fire Department’s newest piece of equipment.

I’m not sure where we are in this image, but it looks like a handsome residential neighborhood with a bishop’s crook lamppost in the back. And as always when fire engines hit the street, a small boy stands nearby, perhaps checking out the machinery.

Postcard: MCNY/54.212.107

What Halloween looked like in 1970s New York

October 15, 2018

If you were a kid in the New York City of the 1970s, Halloween probably resembled this.

Your mom or dad bought you your costume in a store, and it came with a mask held to your head by a rubber band.

Maybe you were the Bionic Woman, or a character from Planet of the Apes, or someone from Star Wars. Or you dressed up as a more classic Halloween character, like Batman or Cinderella or a witch or a skeleton.

You didn’t go to the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village because you had never heard of it. You went trick or treating in your building or on your block after school, and most likely, no adult went with you.

Afterward, your parents probably took some of your candy stash because they didn’t want you to go crazy and eat it all at once. But you did get to eat it, slowly, over the next week or two.

Even though this was the bad old New York of the 1970s, no one was too worried about Halloween candy contaminated with poison or razor blades.

If you were born too early or too late to experience Halloween 1970s style, you can get a sense of it through some wonderful photos taken that decade by street photographer Larry Racioppo.

Racioppo’s Halloween images are available for viewing via the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection. A few examples are in this post.

I’m not sure where we are in the city, though the photo at right shows a war memorial that appears to be put up by the 12th Street block association…though it’s hard to read.

These black and whites capture a moment in time when many parts of New York were rundown and neglected. But that couldn’t stop kids from savoring the thrill of dressing up on Halloween.

Racioppo’s work captures other scenes of New York, and he even put out a book of his Halloween photos in 1980, available on Amazon as well as through his own site.

All photos © Larry Racioppo

A painter who said the subway was his art school

October 15, 2018

New York artists have always found inspiration in the subway. But few were so taken by their fellow passengers that they whipped out a piece of newsprint and sketched faces in the middle of a ride.

Joseph Solman did. Born in Russia but an American since childhood, he studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design.

Despite his formal training, Solman maintained that “he had learned more by sketching on buses and subways,” according to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times.

(Solman died at age 99 that year in his studio above the Second Avenue Deli.)

“Claiming ‘the subway was his art school,'” stated the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts, he “documented dozens of passengers as he commuted to work as a part-time bookie at the Belmont Park race track in Long Island, NY, in the 1960s.”

“With pencil in hand and the daily racing forms as his paper, Solman used sparing, gestural lines to record random travelers engrossed in their private worlds amidst the public space of the commuter train,” the museum continued.

His gouache portraits are tender and poetic, and different from the more abstract urbanscapes he was known for in the 1930s. In 1935 he became a founder of the Ten, a group of Expressionist painters in New York City.

The Ten co-founder Mark Rothko was also inspired by the subway, envisioning the platform as a bare, silent place where people stand close but remain in their solitary worlds.

Solman shared a similar sensibility. “Solman’s subway paintings eloquently capture the tenor of the commuter train, which can be a metaphor for urban America: both crowded and noisy, yet ironically isolated and self-contained,” stated the Danforth Museum.

His 1960s subway riders don’t look all that different from today’s commuters, right? They stare ahead and avert their eyes, armed with an expression of disinterest or a preoccupation with whatever they are reading. I see them every weekday morning.

How things looked one wet night on the Bowery

October 8, 2018

A shapely woman holding (posing?) with an umbrella in front of a brightly lit store window. A statue outside a cigar store.

Car lights up ahead, under the hulking steel tracks of the elevated train, making the Bowery appear darker and more ominous than usual.

And in the background beyond the cigar store are at least two men, forced by the rain and probably circumstance into the shadows of New York’s most blighted skid row at the time.

This is how John Sloan saw the Bowery one wet night in 1911.

A New York public restroom out of the Gilded Age

October 8, 2018

With its granite walls, long oval window, and decorative touches like wreaths and rosettes carved into the facade, it looks more like a temple (or a mausoleum) that a restroom.

But this Beaux-Arts little building on the north side of Bryant Park is a comfort station, as it was originally called when it was constructed along with the main New York Public Library building in 1911.

In 1922, the comfort station was moved from closer to the library (see above in a Daily News photo, when it was near Fifth Avenue) to a section of Bryant Park on the 42nd Street side.

At this location now for 96 years, it fits right in with nearby stairs, statues, and lampposts that are also straight out of the turn of the last century. And to the relief of passersby and park goers, it’s open to the public.

Even though the restroom looks very Gilded Age on the outside, inside features the latest in modern bathroom luxury. Amenities include Toto toilets, earth-shade wall tiles, seat covers, fresh flowers, and attendants, according to a 2017 New York Times piece.

I’m guessing that this Beaux Arts comfort station is the city’s poshest public place to go.

Up until the 1990s, it wasn’t even open; it shuttered during Bryant Park’s druggy heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

If you’re curious about taking a look to see the inside, be warned: the line can be dozens of people deep on a sunny park-perfect weekend.

The sailing ships of the Columbus Circle subway

October 8, 2018

Whether you consider Christopher Columbus a hero or a villain, there’s one thing we can all hopefully get behind: some circa-1904 artistic images at the Columbus Circle subway station.

Behold the blue, green, and off-white faience plaques depicting the Santa Maria, the largest of the three sailing ships Columbus commanded on his first voyage in search of a shorter route to the Far East, according to this 1979 Landmarks Preservation Committee report.

These restored sailing ship reliefs (the second image dates to 2011, as the restoration was in progress) line the platform of today’s 1 train, one of the original stops on the IRT that opened in 1904.

City subway stops celebrate all kinds of nautical images—like at Fulton Street, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat is immortalized on the platform of the 4 and 5 trains.

What remains of an East Harlem pharmacy sign

October 1, 2018

Today, 2268 First Avenue is a brightly lit 99 cent store selling all kinds of household goods, party supplies, and colorful balloons.

But decades ago, in a different New York with independent drugstores on just about every block, this storefront was home to what appears to have been called the Purity and Accuracy Pharmacy.

I’m a fan the nifty Rx symbol—old pharmacy designs and icons are fun, like this mortar and pestle on the Upper East Side—and the cursive font reserved for the “pharmacy” part.

I don’t know when the pharmacy opened, nor is it clear when it closed.

But who doesn’t love coming across these bits and pieces of the city’s past hiding in plain sight, ready to tell a story of a long-gone drugstore and the people who shopped there?