Posts Tagged ‘Gas House District’

The East Side’s long-gone Gas House District

June 20, 2011

“The gas-house district is not a pleasant place in the daytime, much less at night,” explained a 1907 article in Outlook magazine.

That’s partly because the neighborhood, centered in the teens and 20s on the far east side of Manhattan, looked pretty grim: dominated by giant gas storage tanks lining the East River.

The streets didn’t smell so great either, considering that the tanks sprang leaks occasionally.

The grittiness of the Gas House District kept tenement rents low and made it a magnet for poor immigrant Irish in the mid-19th century, then Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Armenians by the 1920s.

But it also attracted a bad element. Crime was high, and it was home base of the Gas House Gang, which committed a reported 30 holdups every night on East 18th Street alone around the turn of the century.

Change was coming though. By the 1930s, most of the storage tanks were gone, and the development of the then-East River Drive opened up the ugly streets to development.

Soon, it was deemed the perfect place to put Met Life’s new middle-class housing developments, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

In 1945, 3,000 families were moved out of the Gas House District, their homes bulldozed. By 1947, the neighborhood was paved over and lost to the ages.

[Right photo: East 20th Street looking toward First Avenue by Berenice Abbott, 1938]

Strange names for some city playgrounds

January 17, 2011

On 17th Street and Avenue C east of Stuyvesant Town is a little spit of land called “Murphy’s Brother’s Playground.”

So who was Murphy and why did his brother get a playground named after him?

It goes back to when this area was part of the old Gas House District and Tammany Hall ruled Manhattan politics.

John J. Murphy was the son of poor Irish immigrants who made a fortune in construction in the late 19th century and became a local politician.

But he owed a lot of his good fortune to his brother, a local saloon keeper and eventual bigwig at Tammany Hall named “Silent Charlie” Murphy.

In 1985, what was then Murphy Park underwent a name change to acknowledge Silent Charlie.

Though why Parks officials didn’t use his actual name is a mystery. Who wants to only be known as someone’s brother?

Poor Richard’s Playground, on Third Avenue and 108th Street, is a nod to the Poor Richard of Poor Richard’s Almanac, aka Benjamin Franklin.

Why pay homage to Ben Franklin? The playground is next to the city-owned Benjamin Franklin Houses.

Building Stuyvesant Town in the 1940s

June 2, 2010

In early 1945, more than 3,000 families moved out of the 600 or so old tenement buildings (such as these at left) between East 14th and 23rd Streets.

Everything on those blocks—including the tenements, two schools, three churches, and two theaters—was razed.

Within a few years they were replaced by the 9,000-apartment Stuyvesant Town, opened in 1947. 

Village writer Dawn Powell chronicles the former Gas House District and the building of Stuy Town (looking like legos in the NYPL photo below) in her diary:

“October 19 [1947]: Walking over to the East River Drive with Joe at night in rainy mist, seeing new houses of Stuyvesant Village rear up against old tenements, new stylish drive cutting through old streets, then the huge power plant—dark, oppressive, like a medieval forge—on to East River Park Drive. Silent boats and tugs gliding along, a body of man in doorway.”

The NYPD’s infamous “Clubber” Williams

November 16, 2009

Alexander “Clubber” Williams was an NYPD inspector in post–Civil War New York City; as captain of the precinct on 35th Street, he’s credited with breaking up the fearsome Gas House Gang that lorded over the East 30s, then known as the Gas House District.

ClubberwilliamsIn 1876 he was transferred to a precinct on West 13th Street, where he’d have jurisdiction over a high-crime area centered around Broadway from the 20s to about 42nd Street thick with theaters, gambling dens, and prostitutes.

Remarking on his new assignment, he supposedly told a friend, referring to the protection money he was likely to receive from gambling operators and madams, “I have had chuck for a long time, and now I’m going to eat tenderloin.”

The name Tenderloin stuck for this seedy neighborhood. Formerly known by the fantastically colorful moniker Satan’s Circus, it was one of the city’s worst. Williams earned the title “Czar of the Tenderloin” for his rough and ready crime-prevention tactics.

Brought up on corruption charges several times over the years, Williams always beat the rap. And when accused of using excessive force, he replied, “There is more law at the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.”

In 1895, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt had him retire. Williams insisted until his death in 1917 that he’d never clubbed anyone “that did not deserve it.”