Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1960s’

The sad decline of an Art Deco movie theater

May 22, 2014

Metrotwinmidtown1933nyplIt started out in 1933 with great promise in the cinema-crazed Depression.

The auspiciously named Midtown was a gem of a movie house on Broadway and 99th Street that played first-run films (Ann Harding! William Powell!)

By the 1950s and 1960s, it had switched to foreign movies, showing European flicks like Belle de Jour, Breathless, Repulsion, and other non-mainstream fare.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The neighborhood was still rebounding after decades of decline, and the Metro took on second-run films, then porn flicks, according to Cinema Treasures.


After a resurgence as an art house venue in the 1980s (and a name change to the Metro), it served as a first-run theater in the 1990s, only to shut its doors in 2004.

MetrotheateremblemSince then, it’s been abandoned, a shuttered eyesore in a neighborhood of higher-end development.

Over the years, new tenants were announced—including retail outlets and a movie theater chain that serves beer—yet never moved in.

Metrotheater2014At least the unique facade, with its Art Deco emblem representing comedy and tragedy amid two female figures, scored landmark status back in 1989.

A piece of another era, the theater haunts the upper Upper West Side, a reminder of something lovely that entertained the community.

A word about the theater’s original name, the Midtown: I suppose the owners thought that this corner at 99th Street and Broadway would soon be the city’s new midtown?

[Photos: top, New York Public Library Digital Collection; second: New York Architectural Images]

So many ways to kick back in 1960s Central Park

April 24, 2014

If the skyscrapers and hotels in the background were cropped out, you might not even know these images were taken in Central Park.


But they were. In the summer of 1961, Life =photographer Leonard McCombe documented New Yorkers enjoying pastimes and pleasures in the park, about a century old at the time.


His photographs came together in an essay in the magazine. All 26 published photos are available in the Life archive.


These five really capture the joys of a lazy warm New York afternoon, and all the ways to enjoy the 800 or so acres of the world’s most famous park.

[No more carriage rides in the park if our current mayor gets his way…]


In 1961, you could have taken a dip in the waters of Bethesda Fountain (well, dogs could, apparently), fish in Harlem Meer (or is that the pond?), or kick a soccer ball around the lawn.


Or kick off your shoes, sit back on a boulder, and dip your toes in cold water while having a smoke.

Of course, these women would be hauled off the jail today; ex–Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in all city parks in 2011!

[Photos: Leonard McCombe—Time & Life Picture/Getty Images]

A West Side neighborhood before Lincoln Center

February 3, 2014

The bell started tolling in 1956 for the rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods west of Amsterdam Avenue in the West 60s.

“New York stands on the threshold of a brave, new era in the performing arts,” lead a New York Times article in April 1956. “An integrated center to serve the theatre, opera and operetta, music and dance is well into the planning stage.”

[Below: a man crosses West 63rd at Amsterdam in 1956]


To build that integrated center, of course, meant doing a little urban renewal: bulldozing the tenements, shops, and light industrial spaces spread out across coveted acreage in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill.

Lincoln Square’s boundaries aren’t clear; this working-class area may have encompassed Columbus Circle to 72nd Street, from Central Park West to the Hudson River.


[Above: a woman and kids hang out on a stoop before it makes way for Lincoln Center, 1956.]

San Juan Hill was a vibrant, mostly African-American enclave of tenements, music halls, and theaters.

[Below: a street in the West 60s, 1956]


Before the wrecking ball arrived in 1957, proponents for and against building what would be known as Lincoln Center duked it out at City Planning Commission meetings.

The argument then is the same one used to today whenever a big project threatens a neighborhood’s existence.

“Friends of the project praised it as a potential contribution to civic progress, education and the cultural arts,” stated a later Times piece.


[Above: kids play in an empty lot strung with laundry, 1956]

“Opponents viewed it as another slum clearance scheme the failed to take into account such human values as the adequate relocation of 7,000 families and hundreds of small businesses.”

LincolncentermetoperahouseLincoln Center is 52 years old this year, so we know how the story ends.

But for the curious who wonder about the neighborhoods that once stood where the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall are today, photos like these remain.

[Photos: New York City Parks Department photo archives]

Where Andy Warhol was shot in Union Square

January 4, 2013

Andy Warhol, 1966.Andy Warhol had three workspace-slash-hangouts he called his “factories” in Manhattan.

But it’s the second factory, on the sixth floor of the Decker Building (on the right) at 33 Union Square West, that gets the most attention. This is where Warhol mass produced his silkscreens and shot films from 1968 to 1973.

DeckerbuildingAnd in July 1968, it’s where he was shot himself.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story. The short version: 31-year-old Valerie Solanas (below), nursing a grudge after Warhol showed little interest in her screenplay, showed up at the factory around 4 pm. She pointed a handgun at him while his Superstar entourage was bustling about, according to Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties.

“No one showed any awareness of what she was doing until they heard the first explosive crack, which missed,” writes author Steven Watson.

Valeriesolanas“Mario Amaya thought it was a sniper firing at them from another building. Fred Hughes thought it was a bomb detonating at the headquarters of the Communist Party two floors above. . . . Andy was the first to realize what was happening and yelled ‘No! No! Valerie! Don’t do it!'”

Warhol crawled under a desk. Solanas’ second shot missed, but the third one, fired at close range with Warhol trapped, tore through his chest.

An ambulance brought him and Mario Amaya, who was also shot, to the old Columbus Hospital on East 19th Street. Initially pronounced clinically dead, doctors cut him open and massaged his heart, saving his life with a five-hour operation.


Warhol recovered, and in 1973 moved his factory (now under much tighter control) to 860 Broadway, just up the street. Solanas turned herself in, scored three years’ prison time, and died in 1988.

A TV yule log becomes a city Christmas tradition

December 24, 2012

Channel11logoIn 1966, WPIX Channel 11 came up with a brilliant idea: film a yule log burning in a fireplace and run the footage on Christmas Eve.

The point was to treat viewers who didn’t have a fireplace to the warm glow of a fire—and give station employees a little time off.

So a camera crew set up shop beside a fireplace in Gracie Mansion, then occupied by Mayor John Lindsay, lit a log, and let it flicker.

“A 17-second image of the fire there was repeatedly spliced together until it was three hours long,” a 2011 New York Daily News article reported. Christmas classics were selected to play in the background.


On Christmas Eve 1966, the Yule Log ran at 9:30 pm—and was a surprise hit. It aired every year until 1970, when the 16 mm footage wore out. So the station shot a new yule log—not at Gracie Mansion (Mayor Lindsay refused to give them permission after the 1966 camera crew accidentally set a rug on fire), but in a house in California with a similar hearth.

The Yule Log ran yearly until 1989. It was brought back in 2001 to help the city deal with 9/11, earning a new audience and its own fan website.

It’s been shown every Christmas since and scores big ratings. Catch this New York holiday tradition from 9 to 1 p.m. on December 25. Or get into the Christmas spirit by watching the log anytime here.

Futuristic housing never built in 1960s Harlem

September 13, 2012

Nuclear power plants? Landing pads for spaceships? Board game pieces?

Actually, they’re apartment buildings—and if visionary designer (some would say futuristic crackpot) Buckminster Fuller had his way, they may actually have been built in Harlem.

Fuller drew up these plans in 1964: His idea was to build 15 100-story structures spanning the entire width of Upper Manhattan, with each tower capable of housing 45,000 people.

It’s an intriguing idea—unless you had to live there.

But it wasn’t as crazy as Fuller’s 1960 plan, which was to cover Manhattan in a two-mile dome.

The point was to help control the weather and air pollution while keeping energy costs down.

Neither plan, of course, made it past fantasy stage.

The bold jewel heist at a popular city museum

June 28, 2012

Could the Museum of Natural History have made it any easier for two thieves to break in and make off with $400,000 in gemstones?

Probably not. It happened on October 29, 1964. Robbers Jack Murphy (right, a former surfing champion) and Alan Kuhn, both from Miami, had already cased the museum and found security at the fourth floor jewel hall to be pretty deficient.

The main burglar alarm hadn’t worked in years, and the alarms in the display cases never had the batteries replaced.

And there was that window left open, which allowed the robbers to get inside the museum via a rope.

Murphy, Kuhn, and an accomplice waiting outside that night made off with the 563-carat Star of India, a blue sapphire donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan, as well as diamonds, rubies, and other rare gems valued at over $400,000.

The thieves didn’t have the loot for long, reports this piece from Mental Floss:

“[They] were apprehended two days later in Miami; according to Murphy, Interpol identified them because they were spending too much money and they were ‘partying too strong.’ The Star of India was recovered from a locker in a Miami bus station.”

All three thieves got three years in prison, and Jack Murphy ended up there again after he was convicted of murdering a young woman in 1967.

The Museum of Natural History hopefully has installed better security since then.

The runaway monkeys on a subway platform

October 17, 2011

So you’re standing on a subway platform waiting for the 1 train—when suddenly you notice a two-foot tall monkey on the platform waiting for the train too.

This actually happened in July 1960, one of many sightings of one or two tan rhesus monkeys at a couple of downtown stations.

“Last Monday two monkeys—origin unknown—were sighted by a passenger in the Chambers Street Station,” reported the Associated Press on July 17, 1960.

After an ASPCA officer captured one, the other fled into the tunnel. A few days later, a motorman saw the fugitive in the tunnel between Chambers and Cortlandt Streets.

Later that week, a startled passenger told a token booth clerk about a monkey “standing on the northbound platform at the Rector Street Station, as if waiting for the train,” reported The New York Times.

So was the runaway monkey ever caught? Maybe not—there’s no follow-up article stating that police finally captured the little guy.

Escaped pets? Lab animals who made a run for it? It’s unclear where they came from, but perhaps one is still there in a downtown IRT tunnel.

[Rector Street platform photo: copyright 2007 Aliandro Brathwaite via]

When Lower Manhattan had a “Radio Row”

July 15, 2011

The Garment District, Flower District, Swing Street—the city has always been chopped into specialty areas.

And in the 1920s with the rise of broadcast radio, Cortlandt and Dey Streets were home to Manhattan’s radio district, aka Radio Row.

The row was more than that; dozens of shops lined local streets.

“Cortlandt once ran from the Hudson River up to Broadway, but now only one block—from Trinity Place to Broadway—remains,” wrote The New York Times in 1981.

“The rest, displaced by the World Trade Center, was a rabbit warren of electrical shops with books on radios stacked up on sidewalks and piles of tubes, condensers, old radios and old radio cabinets set alongside.”

Radio Row adapted to changing times in the 1950s. Stores that sold televisions and hi-fis moved in alongside the radio shops.

Its demise had little to do with the fall of radio and instead can be blamed on the World Trade Center.

In 1961, politicians called for the use of eminent domain to raze Radio Row’s small blocks so the Twin Towers could be built.

Radio Row’s store owners tried fighting it out in court. They lost, getting just $3,000 each from the state to go elsewhere.

[Top photo: Radio Row in the 1960s, copyright Antique Broadcast Classified. Right: a crowd gathers on November 22, 1963, after JFK is assassinated in this Library of Congress photo]

Manhattan’s two worst blocks in the 1960s

April 20, 2011

Over the years, I’m sure countless New York streets have been worthy of this title.

But in the 1960s, two stretches of Manhattan held the crown.

In 1962, journalists gave it to East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues.

Called “absolutely rock-bottom” by a city official in The New York Times that year, East 100th Street was further summed up as “overcrowded, notably unsanitary, ridden with crime and narcotics addiction, it is a microcosm of the worst conditions and worst elements of the city.”

A 1968 New York feature reported that residents held a funeral march for the tenements on the block, “so neglected they were virtually uninhabitable.”

Photographer Bruce Davidson shot a series of black and white photos on East 100th Street chronicling the stark poverty (at right, from 1966).

Today, some tenements appear to have been razed, but a row remains, as you can see on Google.

West 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam may be a little bit shabby by current standards—but it’s a pretty decent Upper West Side block.

Not so in 1961, when the Times awarded it “worst block” status after a 400-resident riot one summer grabbed the city’s attention.

The Times described West 84th as “the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts, and sexual perverts.”

The city’s solution: raze tenements and move residents to new housing projects.

John Podhoretz, who grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1960s, remembers West 84th and recounts the city’s efforts to clean it up here.


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