Posts Tagged ‘Yorkville’

Hollywood tough guys raised in Manhattan

December 27, 2010

Both acting legends were born in 1899, but under very different financial circumstances.

James Cagney started life in a tenement on Avenue D and East Eighth Street but grew up on East 96th Street in mostly German Yorkville.

“Yorkville was then a street-brawling neighborhood, and Jimmy became a champion battler,” stated his 1986 New York Times obituary.

“As a catcher for a Yorkville amateur baseball team, he played a game in 1919 at Sing Sing prison, where five former schoolmates were serving terms.”

Young Cagney went to Stuyvesant High School, then a semester at Columbia. He had jobs at the New York Sun, the New York Public Library, and Wanamaker’s department store on Astor Place.

Good thing he learned tap dancing as a kid. He was able to pick up extra cash doing vaudeville, which led to roles on Broadway and in movies.

Meanwhile, on West 103rd Street, Humphrey Bogart was growing up affluent, a descendant of the Bogaert family, who came to New Amsterdam from Holland in 1652.

Son of a doctor and suffragette, Bogart attended Trinity School, then Phillips Andover academy, where he was expelled.

His family money slowly draining away, he went into the Navy, then tried his hand at screenwriting before turning to acting.

“I was born to be indolent,” he reportedly said. “And this was the softest of rackets.”

[Photo: Bogart at age nine, from Upper West Side Story by Peter Salwen]

Central Park: almost built on the Upper East Side

April 26, 2010

They would have had to call it something besides Central Park, of course.

But the great new park planned for the city in the middle of the 19th century came pretty close to being created on the Upper East Side.

The idea of a park was first suggested in the 1840s, and by 1851, one site seriously considered was Jones’ Wood, 150 acres of dense forest overlooking the East River (above sketch from the NYPL).

Once a summer retreat for New York’s wealthy, Jones’ Wood was being used as a sort of amusement area for working-class residents, featuring beer gardens and dancing.

City authorities thought it would make an ideal retreat from the ills of urban life. But others, anticipating the city’s growth northward, realized it was better to put the new park in a central location.

Though the city approved both sites in 1853, only Central Park was developed, opening in 1859.

Jones’ Wood was slowly parceled out and turned into a residential and commercial area, with the remaining land falling victim to a fire in 1894.

It’s now the location of Upper East Side neighborhoods Lenox Hill and Yorkville.

Manhattan’s lost village of Harsenville

August 22, 2009

Some of New York’s old village names survive today: think Chelsea, Yorkville, New Utrecht, and Gravesend. Others get unceremoniously wiped off the map, with not even a train station bearing the old name. 

That’s what happened to Harsenville. In the late 1700 and 1800s, this little hamlet spanned 68th Street to 81st Street between Central Park West and the Hudson River. It got its name from Jacob Harsen, a farmer who settled there in 1763.

This is his house below, at today’s Tenth Avenue and 70th Street, in an 1888 New-York Historical Society photograph.


Other farm families followed, and soon, a real town formed. Harsenville Road went through what is now Central Park; schools, churches, and shops opened.

By 1911, however, Harsenville was kaput, reports a 1911 New York Times piece on old-timers reminiscing about their ‘hood. The blocks of brand-new brownstones and apartment houses were soon to be known collectively as the Upper West Side.

Interestingly, one new condo building on West 72nd Street capitalizes on the Upper West Side’s small-town history: The developers named it Harsen House.

“New York’s most famous Bavarian Restaurant”

June 9, 2009

Well, maybe it used to be. Original Maxl’s served up old-fashioned heavy-on-the-beer-and-schnitzel fare on East 86th Street, when this was the main drag of German Yorkville. 

I’m not sure when it opened and can’t find anything pinpointing when it closed, but I don’t recall ever seeing a cabin-like facade on 86th Street. I’m pretty sure it’s a high-rise now.


A restaurant guide published in 1931, Dining in New York, has this account:

“Don’t even think of missing Maxl’s. It is a restaurant, a night club, an experience all rolled up in one and seasoned with frequent renditions of ‘Schnitzelbank.’ From the outside, Maxl’s is a peaceful German cottage, vine-hung, cozy, and inviting. The inside is something else again.


“There is a stringy three-piece orchestra, which stops every other moment to drink and sing a toast to each newcomer—an orchestra with a temperamental leader, who insists on grinding out well-known German ditties and resents all verbal college-boy intrusions. . . .

“. . . and there is ‘Happy,’ a 300-pound play-boy who, dressed up in knee pads and alpine hat reminiscent of a Swiss yodeler, knows all the words of all the songs.”

The Marx Brothers’ Yorkville tenement home

June 1, 2009

In 1890 the Marx family—father Sam, who worked as a tailor on Lexington Avenue, mother Minnie, brothers Harpo, Chico, and Groucho, plus Minnie’s parents and a female cousin—moved to a tenement apartment building at 179 East 93rd Street.

Once brothers Gummo and Zeppo were born several years later, 10 family members were stuffed into one apartment, which they paid $27 a month for, according to Groucho’s autobiography, Hello I Must Be Going.


At right is the Marx Brothers’ building today, more or less part of the affluent Carnegie Hill neighborhood. Back in the 1890s, however, it was in the middle of gritty breweries in working-class Yorkville. In his book, Groucho recalls his neck of the Upper East Side around 1900:

“We were surrounded by three breweries where we lived. When I went to school I could smell the malt. We used to go over to Park Avenue, where old man Ruppert lived in a big house with a fruit orchard, and we’d steal his apples and pears. There was a spiked fence about eight feet high, and dogs. We might have been dog meat, but we were very young, and we sure did like those apples and pears.”

Old man Ruppert was the owner of Ruppert’s Brewery, which spanned four blocks in the East 90s and is now the site of Ruppert Towers apartment complex. 

Today, neighborhood preservationists are trying to extend the Carnegie Hill Historic District so it includes the Marx Brothers’ building and isn’t vulnerable to demolition


An early photo of the Marx Brothers. That must be Harpo on the left, but it’s hard to tell for sure who the other three are. Groucho on the far right?

A Yorkville memorial for Lou Gehrig

April 20, 2009

Yankee great Lou Gehrig was born in Yorkville on June 19, 1903. But exactly where isn’t clear.

lougehrigplaqueAccording to this plaque put up in 1990 by the New York Yankees organization, his first home—probably a typical city tenement building—was at or about 309 East 94th Street. Located there now is a branch of Mount Sinai Medical Center. 

But other sources identify Gehrig’s childhood home at 1994 Second Avenue, near 103rd Street.

Apparently there was a plaque set up in memory of the Iron Horse here too, but the business that occupied the site, a garden store, moved out, and no plaque remains.


Wherever he spent his early years, Gehrig is definitely a son of New York City. He and his German immigrant parents moved to Washington Heights when he was a boy; Gehrig later attended Commerce High School, on the Upper West Side.

Then he was off to Columbia—where his mother happened to work as a cook in a fraternity house—to play football and baseball.

That’s where a couple of Yankee scouts discovered him, and the rest is baseball history.

A few signs of an old Czech neighborhood

February 28, 2009

Most New Yorkers know that the East 80s and 90s were home to a large German community through most of the 20th century. But just below in the far East 70s, a Czech neighborhood thrived as well.

There’s not much left now; the tens and thousands of Czechs who once lived there have died or moved on. But a few signs of their old community still exist, such as Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd between First and Second Avenues.


Built in 1897, it featured a ballroom, bar, dance hall, and small bowling alley. It recently reopened after an extensive renovation.


The Czech Gymnastic Association built this 2-story building on East 71st Street in 1896.


In a 1900 article about the neighborhood, The New York Times wrote:

“The large hall is the pride of the gymnasts, for here, when the hall is not otherwise engaged, the trapeze, rings, and bars are used by the juvenile and adult classes of both sexes, who train under the direction of Ferdinand Martyny. the Bohemians are renowned all over the European continent as gymnasts.”

The uptown stretch of Avenue A

February 10, 2009

As the carved stone sign on this school building on 78th Street shows, Avenue A—long associated with the East Village—used to exist on the Upper East Side as well. The uptown branch started up again at 53rd Street. 

79thstavenueasign1 So why the name change? In 1928, most of Avenue A north of 59th Street was renamed York Avenue in honor of World War I hero Alvin York, a Tennessee native awarded the Medal of Honor in 1918.

The portion between 53rd an 59th Street had previously been recast as Sutton Place, after developer Effingham B. Sutton, in the late 19th century.

Here’s more on Alvin York and what he did to win the Medal of Honor.

Stopping in for dinner at the Black Eagle

February 1, 2009

Something tells me you could get a hearty meal at the Black Eagle Restaurant, courtesy of a proprietor with the great name of Gus Koblitz. 

The address on this yellowed, crinkled business card would have put the Black Eagle on the edge of Yorkville, the once heavily German part of the Upper East Side.


The telephone exchange in the upper left corner looks mighty old. It must predate the two-letter, five-digit formula that lasted into the 1960s.