Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1960s’

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.

The candid street photography of Helen Levitt

March 9, 2011

Born in Bensonhurst in 1913, Helen Levitt spent seven decades capturing images of poor and working-class New Yorkers going about life’s unheralded rituals—working, eating, and observing.

And in the case of children, playing. “Levitt’s photographs of Harlem and the Lower East Side, primarily from the late 1930s through mid-1940s, were among the first to expose the inner lives of children, worlds that had only recently surfaced in American art through the spread of psychoanalysis and surrealism,” wrote Richard B. Woodward in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, shortly after her death.

“Her boys and girls immerse themselves in their roles as gangster, diva, street-corner dandy, wise guy, or holy terror with utter conviction.”

In later decades, Levitt worked in color, creating perceptive and tender portraits of ordinary people against the backdrop of a city in decline.

Publicity shy and notorious for rarely giving interviews, she lived alone in a walkup near Union Square for almost 50 years, until she died at age 95.

Her street-theater photos of New York caught off guard have been collected in many books, including the magical Slide Show, published in 2005.

Before they were known as the New York Jets

January 12, 2011

They were the New York Titans. Formed in 1960 as part of the new American Football League, the Titans played at the crumbling Polo Grounds—former home turf of baseball’s New York Giants.

“On September 11th, the Titans took their field for the first time ever at a rain soaked Polo Grounds against the Buffalo Bills,” says

“A disappointing crowd of only 10,200 showed up to watch the Titans win 27-3. Attendance would not improve as the Titans and AFL played in front of empty stadiums all season in the league’s inaugural season.”

So when did the name—and their luck—change? In 1963, the Titans were sold to a new owner. The new Shea stadium was now their home, and the team’s name changed to reflect the jets flying to and from LaGuardia Airport.

The highway that almost destroyed downtown

August 4, 2010

Soho? Never would have happened. Little Italy would be turned into a pile of bricks. And block after block along Delancey, Broome, Kenmare, and Spring Street would have met the wrecking ball as well.

But luckily, none of this happened, because the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway was met with relentless community opposition.

First proposed in 1928, LOMAX, as it was known, would have been an 8-lane elevated highway connecting the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges via Broome Street.

The point was to link New Jersey to Long Island faster and more efficiently. “Master builder” Robert Moses pushed hard for it the early 1960s, claiming it would create much-needed city jobs.

But residents, led by urban activist Jane Jacobs, argued that it would displace thousands of families and signal the demise of entire historic neighborhoods.

Finally, in 1969, the city officially killed the plan.

When city sanitation workers went on strike

August 2, 2010

This foul situation has happened over the years, most recently in 2006. But a weeks-long walkout in November 1911 was particularly nasty.

“In one block in 49th Street the reporter counted 84 cans, every one piled high with garbage and other refuse, while near the avenue corners were big piles of garbage, mostly of rotting perishables, which, like those in 47th street, were surrounded by playing children and scavenging cats and dogs,” reported the New York Times four days after the strike began.

[A horseload of trash being deposited on 72nd Street and First Avenue]

Another  garbage strike lasted nine days in February 1968. The Times reported:

“With many once-clean sections of New York looking like a vast slum as mounds of refuse grew higher and strong winds whirled the filth through the streets, Mayor Lindsay made a brief inspection tour and reported grimly that, “the situation is getting very serious.”

[Here’s a grim Mayor Lindsay touring a Harlem street with aides.]

The late 1960s were rough on the city. Not only did sanitation men walk off the job, but so did teachers and transit workers.

Where the hippies hung out in Prospect Park

May 22, 2010

Back in the late 1960s, long-haired, Dylan-loving Brooklyn kids gathered at a place they called Hippie Hill, described as “a long grassy knoll just up from the Totem Poles,” in a 2008 Daily News column by Denis Hamill.

The “Totem Poles,” below, are Stanford White-designed Grecian columns marking the entrance to the park near the 15th Street subway station.

“On some summer nights in the late ’60s, the crowds would exceed a thousand, young wanna-be troubadours strumming guitars and singing Dylan tunes, which was an instant hippie chick magnet,” writes Hamill.

“Eight-track tape decks boiled with angry Dylan songs. Even returning Vietnam veterans joined the scene, love beads dangling with their dog tags on Hippie Hill, where Dylan provided the soundtrack for our war-torn generation.”

Jack Kerouac at the Kettle of Fish in the Village

January 3, 2010

Opened in 1950, the Kettle of Fish—with its large neon “bar” sign outside the door—was already old-school by the time The New Inside Guide to Greenwich Village came out in 1965:

By then it had earned its cred as a hangout for the early-1960s folk music crowd, and before that as a haunt of beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac.

In Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, author and Kerouac girlfriend Joyce Johnson recalls a night in 1958 when Kerouac visited the Kettle of Fish with poet Gregory Corso:

“Shortly before he returned to Orlando to start packing, [Jack] went out one night with Gregory Corso to the Kettle of Fish, a bar on MacDougal Street that had a rough clientele and was frequented by moving men like Henri Cru. In the fall Jack and I had been photographed in front of its red neon sign by Jerry Yulsman.

“In the small hours of the morning, Jack and Gregory left the bar, followed outside by two men, who beat Jack up, banging his head repeatedly against the curb and breaking his nose and his arm. To his horror, he found he lacked the will to defend himself. . . .”

Kerouac and Joyce Johnson at the Kettle of Fish on MacDougal. The bar moved to the old Lion’s Head space on Christopher Street several years back, where it still is today—and strangely has become the epicenter of Green Bay Packers fandom, as the Daily News explains.

The Kettle of Fish in the 1950s, part neighborhood pub, part beat haunt