Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.


“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”


New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)


New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

Remnants of four obsolete Brooklyn street names

October 3, 2016

In the mid-19th century, Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman noted the “pull-down-and-build-over-again” spirit of his hometown, which was beginning its transformation from a collection of towns and villages to a united urban city.


Part of that transformation meant renaming older streets—to commemorate contemporary heroes, for example, or fix confusing street names that go back to when each individual town or village had its own street grid.

Some of these renamed and obsolete street names still remain carved into the corners of old tenements. Take this one above, marking Macomb Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.


Macomb Street? Named for an early New York merchant and land surveyor, the road was renamed Garfield Place after the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 “at the requests of residents who said Macomb Street was often confounded with Macon Street,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1883, referring to another street in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Then there’s this engraved sign, noting Third Street and North Sixth Street in Williamsburg. My hunch is that as Williamsburg developed and grew, having two number streets intersect was probably confusing.


The solution: rename Third Street Berry Street (after the first mayor of Williamsburg during its tenure as its own city), which it remains today.

Back up to Greenpoint again, Franklin Street used to intersect with Madison Street. What happened to Madison? It was rechristened Oak Street—perhaps because there already was another Madison Street in Bedford Stuyvesant.


That might also be the case with this tenement corner carving, putting us at State Street and Powers Street in Boerum Hill. Powers Street is now Third Avenue, a change likely necessitated to avoid getting mixed up with Powers Street in Williamsburg.

[A big thanks to Ephemeral reader Force Tube Avenue for sending in these photos of old Brooklyn street corners!]

Taking the 3rd Avenue El to the Botanical Garden

September 30, 2016

We can’t be sure that these genteel New Yorkers actually took the Third Avenue El to get to the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre cultural treasure founded in 1891.


But after the turn of the century, when this image was likely taken, there was no easier way to get from Manhattan to the Gardens or the new Zoo opened nearby in 1899.

You could say that the El, the Botanical Garden, and the Bronx or New York Zoological Park, as it was called, are all products of a great late 19th century push to improve city life and its offerings, making New York easier to transverse and giving it world-class cultural institutions—all of which we continue to benefit from.

The faded, falling apart signs for city laundries

September 30, 2016

I’ve always wondered: why do so many of New York’s laundry places and dry cleaners have store signs that look like they’re about to fall apart or haven’t been freshened up since the Carter years.


This is not a criticism; I love coming across signs that have seen better days and bring us back to a different New York. But while so many other types of businesses update their signage frequently, laundry signs tend to look like forgotten relics.


The French Cleaners on Columbus Avenue is now closed. But the sign feels very space age 1960s. Same with Reliance Cleaners, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn.


This launderers sign on Christopher Street is a favorite; it’s colorful and neat with a 1970s vibe. Grand Cleaners in East Williamsburg has the same old-school feel.


This second French Cleaners sign in Fort Greene is hard not to love. The faded blue background! That mini Eiffel Tower! I hope it lights up after dark.


The kindest landlord Greenwich Village ever had

September 30, 2016

strunskywestthirdsignNew York has never been known for its patient and understanding landlords. But the back pages of the city’s history are filled with exceptions, like Albert “Papa” Strunsky.

Strunsky (below) was a portly Russian immigrant who got his start in Greenwich Village selling wine to restaurants before leasing several walkup buildings between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets south of Washington Square.

albertstrunskygvny-comIn the years following World War I, as Bohemia flourished in the Village, Strunsky rented flats to many struggling artists and writers.

And when they had trouble coughing up the rent, he didn’t send an eviction notice.

“Strunsky was a character,” recalled one former tenant, Henrietta Stoner, in an undated interview with the Greenwich Village Gazette.

“But he was the most wonderful man in the world. If you could not pay the rent, he’d settle for a radio, for a painting if you were an artist and he liked your work.”

A reporter writing about the Village in a New York newspaper in 1936 had this to say about broke Villagers’ favorite landlord: “A rent collecting scene with Papa Strunsky is a memorable event. . . . First there is the initial ultimatum: ‘Either pay or get out.'”


“Then, the letdown when Papa asks, ‘Have you finished that book or that painting yet?’ Be the answer negative, it will not be necessary to pack up. Papa Strunsky will stake his tenant to another month—and frequently, to another year.”

Strunsky wasn’t just a Village landlord—he lived in the neighborhood himself at 44 Washington Square South near Sullivan Street (the block above, in 1922; West Third Street west of Sullivan Street today, below).


His wife ran a pay-as-you-wish cafeteria on West Eighth Street, and his children traveled in artistic circles; one married Ira Gershwin.

But for all his generosity, perhaps his heart was a little too big. Because Strunsky wasn’t able to collect all of the money he was owed, the company he leased his buildings from took them back, leaving him struggling.

He died at 75 in 1942, apparently broke but beloved by former tenants.

strunskynytobituary1942Of his landlord days, the New York Times wrote in his obituary: “Mr. Strunsky shunned reporters in those days, for as he explained, each public mention of his name and charities brought fresh waves of hopeful squatters to his door.”

“But ‘they,’ as he described the artists, and ‘they,’ living rent free until his patience was exhausted, would dedicate their pictures, symphonies, and statues to him but pay no money.”

[Second image:; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fifth image: New York Times]

A stunning family portrait of Gilded Age privilege

September 26, 2016

This is Cornelia Ward Hall, wife of businessman John H. Hall, and their four children, in a rich and magnificent 1880 portrait by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani.


Who was Hall? A very well-off wife and mother living in New York at the height of the Gilded Age—one who apparently kept a lower profile than some of her peers.

The portrait doesn’t tell us much about Hall and her family specifically. But in the painting, they represent the era’s twin preoccupations with material wealth and family values: a mother and wife outfitted in the finest clothes and jewels surrounded by her beautiful children.

Think of her as a domestic goddess of the late 19th century, who ruled the home and nurtured her children, as the painting makes clear.

[“Mrs. Cornelia Ward Hall and Her Children” is part of the collection at the Museum of the City of New York; 61.155.1]

Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

September 26, 2016

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.


But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.


It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island

September 26, 2016

It could not have been easy to be an inmate—as it was called in the 19th century—on Blackwell’s Island.

The thin strip of land in the East River, bought by the city in 1828, was were New York brought its undesirables: criminals biding their time in the Penitentiary, sick people sent to the Hospital for Incurables, Lunatic Asylum, or the Small-Pox Hospital, the homeless and disorderly sentenced to the Workhouse.


I’m not sure where these circa-1896 photos were taken, but based on the age and appearance of the diners (and the information provided by the Museum of the City of New York in the caption), they may give us a glimpse into the Almshouse.


There were actually two Almshouses, one for men, one for women. “None but the aged and infirm, who are destitute, are admitted,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “Each newcomer is bathed immediately upon his or her arrival, and clad in the plain but comfortable garments provided by the establishment.”

Staff determined how much and what kind of work each newcomer could do, McCabe wrote. In 1870, 1,114 people lived there, he added—these are probably some of them.

[Top photo: MCNY; second photo: MCNY]

The three most beautiful bridges in the world

September 19, 2016

They’re like sisters: the oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, gets all the accolades. The Williamsburg Bridge came next; at the time it opened in 1903, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This steel span has lots of charms, but it was destined to be in the Brooklyn Bridge’s shadow.


Youngest sister the Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909. It once had an approach modeled after a bridge in Paris and the colonnades on the Manhattan side modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. These days, this workhorse bridge doesn’t get the love its sisters are used to.

The meaning behind Grand Central’s chandeliers

September 19, 2016

grandcentralchandeliervanderbilthallDropping from Vanderbilt Hall and other parts of Grand Central Terminal like heavenly jewels are spherical chandeliers—each with its light bulbs bare and exposed.

There’s a reason for this, and it stretches all the way back to the building’s construction and design at the turn of the last century.

The Vanderbilt family, which built this third version of Grand Central at 42nd Street, were “immensely proud of Grand Central’s status as one of the world’s first all-electric buildings,” states


Previously, train stations and the engines that went in and out of them were smoky and sooty, making them unpleasant—not to mention unsafe.

“In fact, their pride greatly influenced the station’s interior designs. When it first opened, every one of the stations chandeliers and lighting fixtures featured bare, exposed light bulbs—more than 4,000 of them.”


The chandeliers have changed over time; in 2008, the incandescent glow was replaced by fluorescent bulbs. But they continue to pay homage to the forward-thinking vision of the Vanderbilts and the era of quieter, cleaner, unadorned electricity.

Grand Central Terminal (never call it Station!) is a treasure of beautiful interiors. If you’ve ever noticed an acorn and leaf motif, that’s the Vanderbilt family again.