Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1940s’

Old men, a folded chessboard, and Central Park

February 6, 2017

Time stands still in this May 1946 photo, which captures two “old timers,” as the caption states, immersed in a game of chess while surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of Central Park.

Perhaps they were among the former residents of Central Park’s Depression-era Hooverville, a pop-up city of shacks and forgotten men?

chesscentralpark

It’s part of the digitized American Cities collection at the National Archives, which deserves a long thumbing through.

Chess wasn’t the only game older men played in New York City parks. Bocce courts ruled parks in Italian-American neighborhoods, with groups of often Italian Americans crowding green spaces in Lower Manhattan.

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.

secondavesubwaymapthethirdrail

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]

Subway riding in the 1940s with Stanley Kubrick

September 12, 2016

In March 1947, the popular national biweekly publication Look published a stark, six-page photo feature called “Life and Love on the New York Subway.”

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-61a

The photographer behind the powerful and poetic images? Future film director Stanley Kubrick—at the time a teenage correspondent for the magazine who sold photo features on everything from city dogs to shoeshine boys to the life of a New York showgirl.

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-55c

Like street photographers before him (think Walker Evans during the Depression), Kubrick decided to take his camera underground and shoot the people riding the trains.

He hoped to reveal the emotion and humanity behind the typical subway rider’s facade of disinterest and indifference, to capture romance, humor, vulnerability, and loneliness.

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-45f

He explained how he did it in an interview with Camera magazine a year later.

“Kubrick rode the lines for two weeks,” the article stated. “Most of his traveling to and fro was done at night, as more unusual activities were likely to take place then.”

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-10292-63d

Kubrick used no flash, and apparently his subjects didn’t know they were caught on film.

“These are truly unusual studies and expressions of life in a subway. Running true to form, drunks, love makers, sleepers, wanderers, and lonesome people were caught, wholly unaware of the fact that they were being photographed.”

kubricmcnyx2011-4-10292-100c

His images are striking in their ordinariness, not unlike the faces of subway riders under the streets of New York City today. Train interiors and platforms haven’t changed either.

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-125

But taking pictures on a train in the 1940s posed challenges.

“Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind.”

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-92e

The kicker of the Camera story foretells the future. “Stan is also very serious about cinematography, and is about to start filming a sound production written and financed by himself, and several friends.”

kubrickmcnyx2011-4-11107-49f

These photos and hundreds more from Kubrick can be viewed via Museum of the City of New York digital collections.

[All photos from the MCNY. Accession numbers: photo 1: X2011.4.11107.61A; photo 2: X2011.411107.55C; photo 3: X2011.4.11107.45F; photo 4: X2011.4.10292.63D; photo 5: C2011.4.10292.100C; photo 6: X2011.4.11107.125; photo 7: X2011.4.11107.92E; photo 8: X2011.4.11107.49F]

A 1947 mob murder on Grove Street jolts the city

May 16, 2016

GrovestreettenementFrom the river pirates of the 1800s to the mobsters of the 20th century, New York’s once-thriving waterfront had always been riddled with crime.

One man’s murder on a quiet West Village street in 1947 revealed just how depraved and corrupt the criminals who ran the piers could be.

On the morning of January 8, 1947, Anthony Hintz was leaving the third-floor apartment he shared with his wife at 61 Grove Street (right).

Hintz was headed to Pier 51, at the foot of Jane Street, where he was the hiring boss. His job was to run the “shape-up,” the process of deciding which longshoremen looking for a job that day would be picked to work.

GrovemurderjohndunnAlmost all of the city’s piers were run by hiring bosses under the thumb of crime syndicates. The bosses would demand kickbacks from men who wanted to work, and the money would be shared with the mobsters.

Pier 51 (below), however, was not controlled by the mob. Hintz refused to submit to gangsters.

Naturally, the mob want to get rid of Hintz. The job was undertaken by gangster and enforcer John “Cockeye” Dunn (left) and his associate, Andrew “Squint” Sheridan.

On January 8, these two killers with the noir-ish nicknames (along with a thug and former boxer named Danny Gentile) lay in wait for Hintz beside the stairwell in his building.

Grovestreetpier51Dunn, Sheridan, and Gentile ambushed Hintz right just after he kissed his wife good-bye and walked out the door.

He was shot six times and lay bleeding in the hallway in front of his wife, who came out to see what was happened. “Johnny Dunn shot me,” he said.

Gravely injured, he was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital up Seventh Avenue. There, he held on long enough to tell police that Dunn was the shooter. Hintz died three weeks later.

Dunn and Sheridan were quickly arrested; Gentile turned himself in a few months later. All three were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair.

Grovestreetnytimesjuly81949Gentile was lucky; his sentence was commuted. Dunn and Sheridan, ruthless and remorseless, were electrocuted in 1949.

If any of this real-life mob murder sounds familiar, here’s why: the story of Hintz’s murder and an exhaustive New York Sun series about it inspired Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

[Second photo: mafia.wikia.com; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth image: New York Times headline July 8, 1949]

Times Square at night, as 1941 becomes 1942

December 29, 2014

Wartime New Yorkers still took the time to celebrate the new year, crowding into a Times Square ablaze with light in this Life magazine image.

116568761.jpg

Life put together a slideshow of other photos that capture New Year’s Eve 1941: military policemen, soldiers and sailors dancing and drinking, and NYPD horses herding the crowd.

Rainy sidewalks and streetcar tracks in 1945

December 8, 2014

At Fourth Avenue looking toward Astor Place, Arthur Leipzig took this black and white shot of the street and trolley tracks slick with rain from what looks like a cold, dreary downpour.

The image captures the strange beauty of the city under dark, rainy skies, as well as a provocative moment during an ordinary New York day: pedestrians going on their way, the glow of a single traffic light, parked cars that have accumulated snow.

Leipzigrain1945

Leipzig, a wonderful photographer of New York’s moods and moments, passed away last Friday.

The New York Times wrote that “his goal was to capture people — their personalities, problems and potential — at a particular moment in the rush of time; making artfully lighted and carefully rendered portraits was not for him.”

Buying produce from Bleecker Street pushcarts

June 30, 2014

Thanks to the bell tower of the Our Lady of Pompeii Church that’s still on the corner at Carmine Street, this soft, muted depiction of vegetable sellers and neighborhood shoppers at Bleecker Street is instantly recognizable.

Beladetirefortbleeckerst

It’s probably the early 1940s. Artist Bela de Tirefort, an Austrian native, painted many scenes of daily life around Washington Square Park and the Flatiron Building from the 1930s through the 1950s.

It’s not clear if this is also Bleecker Street, but the resemblance is strong.

Beladetirefortmarket

“In the 1940s, pushcarts made this street all but impassable,” states the Project for Public Spaces.

“Cart operators were forced by law to move indoors, but the street retained its association with food, and today’s Bleecker Street still contains some of the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, pastries, cheeses, meats, fish, and delicacies to be found in the city.”

Thirty or so years earlier in 1915, Ashcan painter George Luks also took a stab at depicting the shops and crowds in this nighttime view of the opposite corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.

The WWII servicemen’s hangout at Grand Central

February 20, 2014

ServicemensloungeWartime New York City was a very hospitable place for the thousands of enlisted men (and women) going off to fight in World War II or returning home on furlough.

Take Grand Central Terminal, for example. During the war, the East Balcony was turned into a “Service Men’s Lounge” by the New York Central and New Haven Railroads.

According to the back of this postcard, the lounge was “equipped with ping pong and pool tables, library, piano, easy chairs, lunch counter, etc.”

Servicemensloungepostcard

The lounge was “a meeting room for men of all nations,” wrote John Belle in Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. “On any given day, it was not unusual to see a kilted Highlander at the coffee bar learning from an American soldier how to dunk a doughnut.”

In 1943, Life ran this warning about the lounge to travelers: “Busiest on weekends when thousands travel on furlough. To give them more room on weekend trains, plan trips you must make for mid-week.”

Cocktail time at an old 1940s Russian restaurant

February 10, 2014

RussianrestaurantpostcardEver heard of Tarwid’s Russian Bear restaurant? Me neither, but based on their postcard advertisements, I’m intrigued.

“America’s oldest Russian restaurant” boasted that it was “nationally famed the excellence of its Russian cuisine and beauty of true Russian atmosphere.”

Tarwid’s once had a prime location on Lexington Avenue in Midtown. Must have been the site of some truly epic working lunches.

According to real-estate records, the place relocated to Lexington and 57th Street in 1948, and then moved down Lexington to 39th Street in 1952.

Russianrestaurantpostcardback

After that, the trail goes cold. Today, the address leads to a 1960s-style apartment building housing several small stores.

Tarwidspostcardfront

I love the ELdorado phone exchange and the old-school ZIP code, only the last two digits necessary for mail to be delivered within New York City.

A Harlem park named after two famous hoarders

October 7, 2013

It’s not as if their Harlem neighbors were close to Homer and Langley Collyer.

The two brothers seemed to want nothing to do with local residents—and the feeling appeared to be mutual.

Collyerbrothersstreet

Born in the 1880s, Homer and Langley resided in a once-elegant brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street since 1909 with their well-off parents, a physician and a former opera singer.

Homercollyer1939The brothers were always eccentric. But once their parents passed away in the 1920s, they retreated from the world and lived behind locked doors, “hiding from the eyes of curious neighbors,” The New York Times stated.

The 1920s passed, then the 1930s.

Neighbors never saw them, so rumors spread: they were rich, they owned half the city waterfront, they had 20 grand pianos in their basement. No one had been inside, so no one knew the truth.

[Homer, above in 1939, makes a rare appearance on his stoop to fight eviction]

Langleycollyer1946Their phone and gas had been shut off. The brothers had money, they preferred to live in seclusion among thousands of hoarded items: bundles of newspaper, old pianos, car parts, and mountains of other worthless possessions.

[Langley, right, forced to leave the house in 1946 for a court date to battle a condemnation order.]

They met their end in 1947. Langely appeared to die first, felled by one of the booby traps he’d created amid piles of trash to block thieves.

But police found Homer’s body first. The medical examiner determined that he died of malnutrition. Blind and paralyzed, he starved to death days after Langley was caught in his own trap.

Over the next weeks, about 130 tons of garbage were removed from the rotting house, which was bulldozed.

Collyerbrothersparkwiki

Considering how Homer and Langley had nothing to do with their neighbors, it’s curious that the pocket park occupying the site of their old brownstone bears the name Collyer Brothers Park.

I wonder what they would think of the honor?

[Photos: New York Daily News, Wikipedia]