Posts Tagged ‘New York tenement’

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

The writing on the wall of an East Side tenement

February 11, 2019

Sometimes in New York you come across a building that’s trying to tell you something. Take this red-brick tenement on the corner of Second Avenue and 109th Street.

At some point in the past, ads were painted on the facade—designed to catch the eyes of Second Avenue El riders and pedestrians in a neighborhood that was once a Little Italy, then became Spanish Harlem by the middle of the century.

Now, perhaps nine decades later, enough faded and weathered paint remains to give us a clue as to what the ads were about.

The ad on the right side of the facade might look familiar to faded-ad fans; that familiar script used to be painted all over the city.

Fletcher’s Castoria was a laxative produced by Charles Fletcher all the way back in 1871. The company promoted the product until the 1920s with ads on the sides of buildings, a few of which can still be seen today.

This photo taken by Charles von Urban (part of the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York) shows a similar ad on East 59th Street in 1932.

The ad—or ads—on the left side of the tenement are harder to figure out. “Lexington Ave” is on the bottom, and it looks like the word “cars” is on top.

A garage? A gas station? For a while I thought the word in the middle might be Bloomingdale’s, a good 60 or so blocks downtown on Lexington. There was—and maybe still is—a very faded Bloomingdale’s ad on a building at 116th Street and Lexington.

Exactly what riders and walkers saw when they passed this corner is still a mystery.

[Third image: MCNY 3.173.367]

An old house and the “human comedy” around it

September 17, 2018

I wish I knew exactly where this old wood house once stood.

All I know is that it was somewhere in today’s Lower East Side, and in 1915 captured the eye of painter Jerome Myers, a Virginia native who moved to New York in the 1880s.

Myers focused his attention on the city’s worst slums, and what he called the “human comedy” that inspired and riveted him.

“Curiously enough, my contemplation of these humble lives opened to me the doors of fancy,” he wrote in 1940. “The factory clothes, the anxious faces disappeared; they came to me in gorgeous raiment of another world—a decorative world of fancy, like an abstract vision. I was led to paint pictures in which these East Side scenes are lost in a tapestry of romance. Reality faded in a vault of dreams…”

Rock-throwing and gunfire on Election Day 1864

November 7, 2016

If you think the 2016 presidential election has been brutal, consider the violence triggered by the election of 1864—as seen through the eyes of a bright 9-year-old boy living in a tenement district on Eighth Avenue and 57th Street.

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That year, incumbent President Lincoln was up against General George B. McClellan. “The campaign was very bitter on both sides in our neighborhood,” recalled James Edward Kelly, a sculptor who published his memories of the Civil War–era city in Tell Me of Lincoln.

lincolnbookcoverKelly remembered his pro-Lincoln father, “having rows with the Copperhead neighbors.” Copperheads, of course, were Northerners who were against the Civil War.

There were plenty of Copperheads in New York, who felt the war was bad business for New York merchants. Thousands of immigrants, many Irish, who had fought in the war were also disenchanted.

Many Irish women, Kelly wrote, “thought if McClellan were elected on ‘The War is a Failure’ platform, their husbands would come back from the front.”

With a war going on, much was at stake—and it showed in city streets.

‘The streets were overhung with banners, decorated (or defaced) with so called portraits of Lincoln and Johnson and McClellan and Pendleton,” wrote Kelly. “There were the usual torchlight parades, and the air echoed with glorification of ‘Little Mac,’ and the abuse of ‘Old Abe.'”

lincolnjohnsoncampaignpostercurrierives“The very curbstones were covered with election posters called ‘gutter snipes.'”

After a brutal campaign season, it was finally Election Day, a holiday in the city. On that cold, rainy morning, Kelly left his house to a polling place.

“I peeped in the doorway. Along the counter were some large glass globes . . . .There was a slit in the top, through which was dropped the folded ballot. . . . The room was filled with tobacco smoke, though I could dimly make out the glint of a policeman’s buttons.”

“Before I could see more, I was hustled aside by a crowd of drunken roughs, who joggled the undisciplined voters swarming in and out at will. I saw a crowd on the corner rush through 57th Street. I followed them to near Sixth Avenue, where they ran into another crowd, and began to pelt one another with stones.”

lincolnelection1864electinoneering

“Then a shot snapped out. The crowd ceased fighting. . . . The man who had been shot was half lying, resting on his right arm, with his left hand on the wound in his breast, groaning heavily.”

“Hustled aside by the crowd, I trotted homeward, joining the other boys collecting ballots which were scattered thickly upon the sidewalks  and along the gutters.”

lincolnelectionpollingplacenyplAt day’s end, the action was only beginning, with Election Night bonfires illuminating the sky.

“The short November day began to darken. According to the English custom, a voice rang out, ‘Hear ye! Hear ye! The polls are closed!’ The crowd made a charge for the election boxes, carting them off to be used for the fires later that evening.”

“Night came on, cold, bleak, and drizzly. . . . The boys who had been stealing barrels for a month or so, now rolled them out of their cellars, or carried them on their heads in triumph. They built them into mounds before touching them off.”

lincolnmccellanposter“With yells of a gang of large boys, the grocer’s wagon was hauled along and run into the flames, but was rescued by the frantic German.”

“Boys danced around and jumped through the flames, till at last, they were hauled off by the ear or the neck by their enraged mothers who had been hunting for them. Finally, the rain scattered the rest, and the embers died down under its dreary beat.”

The results weren’t in until the next morning. While Lincoln received only 33 percent of the vote in New York City, voters from the rest of the country gave him a second term.

lincolnelection1864nyt

“Next morning, my father was up bright and early, and called to us, ‘President Lincoln re-elected.’ Then we sat down to a joyous breakfast, while he read aloud the details of the victory.”

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverKelly wouldn’t yet know that at the end of November, a group of Confederate sympathizers would attempt to burn down New York. The plot was foiled, and it turned many residents against the South and pro-Union, hoping for victory.

Interestingly, McClellan’s son, George B. McClellan Jr., became New York’s mayor from 1904-1909.

Read about the Plot to Burn Down New York City in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

Hard times on Depression-era East 61st Street

October 12, 2015

Last week, Yale University launched an interactive digitized photo archive packed with 170,000 incredible photos taken during the Depression.

Depression1938womanwindow

The images, shot by various photographers, are also part of the Library of Congress. They cover faces and places across the nation—including ordinary residents of New York City working, playing, and rushing on their run.

But one subset of photos, shot by Walker Evans in 1938, is particularly haunting. These 40 or so images focus on one gritty tenement block on East 61st Street, and the unglamorous people who live there.

Depressionnycwalkerevans193861st

This isn’t the East 61st Street of Bloomingdale’s or Fifth Avenue. This is the East 61st Street between Third and First Avenues, a poor neighborhood known at the turn of the century as Battle Row.

Depression1938kidsunderstoop

In the middle of the Depression, East 61st Street looks like a regular workaday part of New York City—thanks in part to the corner cafeteria, an idling beer truck, and laundry-laden fire escape (below).

Depression193861stand1stave

The people seem ordinary too. Kids play on the stoop, men and women gather to talk, a lone woman hangs out a window. A solitary older gentleman sits on his stoop forlornly.

Depression1938stooploneman

Who were they? The photos reveal their quiet humanity, and their stony faces hint at hard times. They certainly don’t look like they enjoyed having Evans hang around with his camera.

Depression1938east61stmoving

Above, a resident is moving in or out of one building—via a horse-drawn wooden cart. And are those Belgian blocks paving the road?

Evans and his camera lurked around other parts of Manhattan in the 1930s as well, like on the subway, where he surreptitiously shot random subway riders staring, reading, or lost in their daydreams.

Hanging laundry on a New York tenement roof

April 6, 2015

John Sloan sure had a thing for painting rooftops.

“Red Kimono on the Roof,” from 1912, is just one of many Sloan paintings depicting the view from a roof, or featuring women hanging laundry or catching a breeze from the top of a tenement.

Redkimonojohnsloan

“This unglorified glimpse of a woman hanging laundry was probably painted from Sloan’s studio window,” states the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s website.

Left behind street signage of an older Manhattan

August 5, 2013

Readers of this site know that street signs are a favorite here, especially the old-fashioned kind carved into a building’s facade—like the one below at Sixth Avenue and 24th Street.

Doesn’t the lettering transport you to an entirely different New York? In fancy type it tells us that we’re at The Corner.

Thecornersign

“Built in 1879, it was called ‘The Corner’ and was the beer hall annex to Koster & Bial’s Vaudeville Theater/Concert Hall, where Victor Herbert conducted his 40-piece orchestra,” explains a 1995 New York Times piece.

102ndstreetsign

At the time, this was the center of an area called the Tenderloin (also referred to illustriously as Satan’s Circus), the late 19th century sin district filled with dance halls, gambling dens, and brothels.

This corner sign for 102nd Street and Broadway is also wonderfully decorative. I’m not sure when it went up, but it looks very turn of the 20th century. (Thanks to Ephemeral reader IA for pointing it out.)

Doyersstreetsign

This one on Doyers Street in Chinatown might be the oldest actual Manhattan street sign—meaning a sign affixed to a pole or side of a building, rather than a plaque or engraving.

Grimy and hard to read after decades stuck to this building, it harkens back to a more down and dirty Chinatown of tong wars, when Doyers Street went by the infamous nickname the Bloody Angle.

Ghostly outlines of the city’s vanished buildings

July 29, 2013

Once, they served as homes, shops, and offices for an older New York.

Now, they no longer exist—the only trace left behind are faded impressions where each building once stood. These haunting outlines will also vanish soon, covered up by the new office tower or co-op and erased from the city’s memory forever.

Ghostoutlinesixthand17thst

I often pass by the long-empty parking lot at Sixth Avenue and 17th Street and wonder about the low-rise tenement that is no longer there. I always liked what looks like a little chimney outline in the center.

Ghostlyoutlines56thand1st

At Lexington Avenue and 56th Street is an odd-shaped building—another tenement?

Makes sense; this was once a neighborhood of belching factories on or near the East River and the houses of people who worked in them.

Ghostlyoutlinechinatown

Check out the impression of a jagged roof left on a taller building on Lafayette Street. I would have loved to have seen it in person.

Ghostlyoutlines30thst

Chimney outlines are always enchanting. Who occupied this gone-forever little house on West 30th Street, and what were their stories?

Some mysterious names carved into tenements

January 7, 2013

I love that even the lowliest tenements typically have names. A developer would complete his building, then carve a word or two above the entrance—such as the name of the street or a popular politician—to distinguish it from the pack.

Tenementclaremount

Some names are obvious, others more mysterious, such as this one in the East Village. The Claremount is a handsome building on East 12th Street. But why Claremount?

Claremont Avenue, named for an old New York family, is a short street in Morningside Heights, but I’m not aware of any connection between the Claremonts and the East Village. Perhaps it just sounded posh.

Tenementnonpareil

The Nonpareil is a tenement on Edgecombe Avenue on the Harlem/Washington Heights border. It translates into “having no match” or “unrivaled.” Quite a boastful name for such a humble building!

Tenementminneola2

Minneola is reportedly a Native American word for “a pleasant place.” Hence this building, in the South Village. Or is it a misspelled homage to Mineola, Long Island?

Tenementhelencourt

Helen Court sounds like a soft, peaceful tenement. It’s in Harlem near 125th Street. Helen was a popular name about a century ago. Who was Helen—the developer’s wife or daughter?

The “enigmatic emptiness” of a city sidewalk

October 25, 2012

“Edward Hopper’s haunting realist canvas evokes an enigmatic emptiness that has become the artist’s trademark,” states the caption accompanying this 1924 painting on the website of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.

“His sparsely populated New York cityscapes, bleak New England views, and lonely interiors share the same stark simplicity.”

“In New York Pavements Hopper used bold cropping, an elevated point of view, strong diagonal lines, and a simple, bleached palette to achieve an odd and detached effect.”

“From a bird’s-eye perspective, the only hint of narrative is the figure emerging from the lower left.”

It’s such an ordinary city scene yet so disquieting. Who is the nun with the baby carriage, and what neighborhood is this?