Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1940s’

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

The solemn story of Park Avenue’s holiday trees

December 30, 2019

Uptown Park Avenue is an almost unbroken line of stately, impeccable apartment buildings. And every December, it’s also a miles-long line of sparkling holiday trees.

Each year since the end of World War II, the fir trees on Park Avenue’s traffic islands are strung with lights that glow like white or amber jewels in the crisp winter night, a “glittering necklace,” as one 1987 article called it, bathing this stretch of Park in a soft winter glow.

The story behind the trees (and the annual tree-lighting ceremony) is less celebratory and more solemn: “The tradition of lighting trees on Park Avenue began in 1945 when several Park Avenue families wanted a special way to honor those men and women who had died in World War II,” states the website for the nonprofit Fund for Park Avenue, which administers the event.

These families paid for the cost of bringing in fir trees, buying lights, putting together a crew of electricians, and holding the annual ceremony that always included a bugler playing “Taps,” according to a 2005 New York Times article.

It’s since continued every year with the help of other donors. Lovely as the trees are, it’s not an easy venture to organize. Some changes have been made since the early days, when Boy Scouts manually turned on all the lights.

For starters, the holiday lights used to be red, white, green, and blue, but that made it hard for drivers to see traffic lights, so only white remained, stated the Times.

Interestingly, people have tried to steal the trees…which is why each one is now attached to the ground with cables, the Times wrote.

The number of trees and the exact streets they span appears to change as well. And in recent years, service members who fought in other wars haven’t been left out. A Daily News article (above center) from 1963 mentions that soldiers who served in Korea were honored.

“Today the illuminated trees—which appear on the malls between 54th and 97th Streets—remain a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made to attain it,” states the Fund. The playing of “Taps” before the trees are lit continues.

[Last photo: Park Avenue in 1964, MCNY X2010.11.14131]

The magical “blue hour” in rainy 1940 New York

December 9, 2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets.

I’m not sure where Dolice painted this moody, magical scene. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the city at twilight he’s captured here—an enchanting, slightly eerie few moments whether in the middle of Times Square or on a lonely side street.

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Shadows and light under the El in Yorkville, 1947

May 7, 2018

No one depicts New York’s shadows and light like Martin Lewis, who made numerous drypoint etchings of city streets and the people inhabiting them from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“Yorkville Night” reveals a corner under an unnamed elevated train in the postwar city. There’s darkness, but the streetcar tracks, pavement, produce stand, and station stairwells are brightly illuminated, giving us a peek into a fleeting moment in this Upper East Side neighborhood.

The only thing we can’t see are the faces of the people.

See more of Martin Lewis’ work here.

The woman in Edward Hopper’s “Summertime”

July 7, 2017

She’s young and attractive, wearing a summer straw hat and see-through dress that doesn’t blow quite as much as the curtains in the window to her left do.

Stepping out of her tenement entrance and standing at the sidewalk during the summer of 1943, she appears to be waiting—for what?

The writer behind Edwardhopper.net has this take on her, one of the many isolated souls Hopper depicted in New York in the first half of the 20th century. “The outfit, obviously new, refers to the increased prosperity of the nation, which at last had been able to put aside many of the difficulties of the Depression,” states the site.

“She is part of the large group of young American females who had to survive the war years as best they could, years marked by a dearth of eligible young men and an abundance of money accrued from the jobs the war effort engendered.” Perhaps she’s waiting for the war to end, and the life she wants to begin.

Would you do laundry in the Central Park lake?

May 22, 2017

Would you wash your clothes by hand in the lake in Central Park? These three women did it, and they had a reason.

December 16, 1949—the day the photo was taken—was “dry Friday” in New York City. Thanks to a severe drought that left upstate reservoirs at 34 percent capacity, city residents were forbidden to shave, bathe, or do any other activity that day if it required water.

These three women—Copacabana girls, part of the East Side nightclub’s famous chorus girl lineup, per the caption on the photo—are demonstrating their patriotic duty to do laundry without any running water.

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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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]