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Over the past few years I have had the wonderful opportunity to pore over countless books describing New York City’s past while doing research for posts.  These forays down the memory lanes of others have painted a colorful picture in my mind of what New York was in decades (and centuries) past.  I would like to share a few snippets here that I found especially interesting in that they describe what places all too familiar to me in 2014 “looked” like back in the day.

A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

A drawing titled “The Genius of Advertising” from an 1880 issue of the National Police Gazette shows men outside a brothel gazing at pictures of some of the attractions awaiting them inside (photo via The New York Times)

SoHo (1859)

During the early 1800′s, the posh shopping and dining neighborhood in downtown Manhattan called SoHo (which stands for SOuth of HOuston), enjoyed  its previous heyday as a commercial destination for well-to-do New Yorkers.  By mid-century, however, while Broadway around Prince and Spring Streets remained for some time the “Fifth Avenue” of its day, bordellos began popping up on side streets, and the area soon became New York’s first red light district.  Particularly informative listings could be found in the Directory to the Seraglios in New York, published by A Free Loveyer, in 1859:

Miss Clara Gordon
No. 119 Mercer Street
“We cannot too highly recommend this house, the lady herself is a perfect Venus: beautiful, entertaining, and supremely seductive. Her aidesdecamp are really charming and irresistible, and altogether honest and honorable. Miss G. is a great belle, and her mansion is patronized by Southern merchants and planters principally. She is highly accomplished, skillful, and prudent, and sees her visitors are well entertained. Good wines of the most elaborate brands, constantly on hand, and in all, a finer resort cannot be found in the City.”

Mrs. Bailey
No. 76 Greene Street, below Spring
“This quiet and comfortable resort is situated very central, and within a few moments’ walk of Broadway and the principal hotels… Gents must come well recommended or they won’t get in. . . The hostess is an agreeable lady, indued with a tasteful mind. . . Her young ladies behave with much prudence and propriety…”

Exerpted from: SoHo A Guide by Helene Zucker Seeman and Alanna Siegfried, published by Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York, NY, 1978.


memories of manhattanGreenwich Village (1860s/1870s)

When I first picked up the book Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies, I thought to myself, oh goody, a memoir about the New York of my childhood.  I opened the book, and to my surprise and delight, this catalog of memories, written by Charles Townsend Harris, is a look back not on the twentieth century, but on the 1860’s and 1870’s.  In an early chapter, he writes about his memories of the Village:

The street life of Greenwich Village in the sixties and seventies was different from that of any other part of the city, having more of the rural atmosphere.  Vendors with tin ovens sold hot corn in the summer and baked potatoes with butter and seasoning in the winter.  During the spring and early summer women bore trays of wild strawberries on their heads, furnishing the fruit in small splint baskets.  Chimney sweeps patroled [sic] the streets soliciting jobs with their musical cries, and fish peddlers made “the welkin ring” with blasts from their tin horns.  Pass down Morton, Barrow, Le Roy, and Grove Streets or Greenwich Avenue today and observe the home like houses that are left.  There was no “jerry” building in their time; the great fault was that they lacked bath rooms, a wash tub on Saturday night furnishing the means of the weekly ablution.  The frames and inside finish of the houses were of honest timber; the method of construction was substantial and artistic and meant to be lasting. (45)

Harris, Charles T. Memories of Manhattan in the Sixties and Seventies. New York: Derrydale Press, 1928.


The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Canal Street (1886)

While doing research for an earlier post, I came across a picture of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals. A little research then produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of  the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:

Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway.  This was a famous resort for us schoolboys.  It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels.  This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.

“The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker. The New York Times, April 9, 1886

he author and her father. From an old daguerreotype taken at Brady's Daguerrean Gallery, 10th St. and Broadway, in 1847.

The author and her father. From an old daguerreotype taken at Brady’s Daguerrean Gallery, 10th St. and Broadway, in 1847.

NoHo (1850)

I recently read the most charming diary of a young girl named Catherine Havens.  Born into a prominent New York family in 1839, Catherine kept a diary from 1849-1850 that gives us a glimpse into the life of a child in mid-century (the nineteenth century, that is) New York.  The following is her entry on where to purchase candy and confections:

There is a bakery kept by a Mr. Walduck on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, and they make delicious cream puffs, and when I have three cents to spare, I run down there right after breakfast, before school begins, and buy one and eat it there. On the corner of Broadway and Ninth Street is a chocolate store kept by Felix Effray, and I love to stand at the window and watch the wheel go round. It has three white stone rollers and they grind the chocolate into paste all day long. Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they make molasses candy that is the best in the city. Sometimes we go down to Wild’s, that is way down near Spring Street, to get his ice-land moss drops, good for colds.

My mother says Stuart’s candy store down on Greenwich and Chambers Streets used to be the store in her day. When she was a little girl in 1810, old Kinloch Stuart and his wife Agnes made the candy in a little bit of a back room and sold it in the front room, and sometimes they used to let my mother go in and stir it. After they died their sons, R. and L. Stuart, kept up the candy store in the same place, and it is there still. (p. 58-60)

Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, by Catherine Elizabeth Havens; 2nd edition (1920)


md13728577542Hell’s Kitchen (1937)

In Millicent Kent’s 1937Angel of Hell’s Kitchen, a memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her mother, she remembers living in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen:

We were now living on the ground floor of a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen.  If you don’t know New York, that name will probably mean nothing to you.  Decent people in that big city steer clear of it.  Situated down near the river front, bordered on one side by passing railroad trains, trucks, and automobiles, it is the center of vice in that big city, breeding gangs of the worst sort.  From these gangs come many of the criminals you read about in the newspapers.  From here, too, come girls who still earn their miserable living walking the streets and selling their bodies.  The rankest kind of liquor is made there.  When I lived in Hell’s Kitchen it was also the center of dope traffic and the hideout of fugitives from the law.  “Hell’s Kitchen” is right.  All the hell in the world is cooked up there. (page 15)

Angel of Hell’s Kitchen Millicent Kent New York: Godwin, 1937


i am thinking of my darlingEast New York (1943)

Vincent McHugh’s euphoric 1943 novel I Am Thinking of My Darling in which New Yorkers are infected with a mysterious virus during an unusually warm spell in February that makes them happy.  The “sick” lose all inhibitions, walking away from their jobs, marriages, responsibilities.  Banks dole out cash, stores give away food, movies are free.  And it is up to one man, acting mayor Jim Rowan, to make sure the city does not fall apart while he tries to contain the contagion until a cure is found.

On Livonia Avenue, under the IRT pillars, the Moors were having a festival.  Real Moors.  Moroccans.  Other North Africans, and the Spanish ones.  The street lights out.  A yellow bonfire sparking up through the tracks, and bare bulbs strung from pillar to pillar.  Kitchen chairs for the jouncing musicians.  Sharp yells, and the vivid full skirts whirling, whipped about the smooth thighs in a folding corolla, and the easy subtle balanced rhythmic interplay of the drums, the rhythm that comes through flamenco and rumba and Calypso and samba and New Orleans jazz. (108-109)

McHugh, Vincent. 1943. I am thinking of my darling, an adventure story. New York: Simon and Schuster.


"Bushwick" A brochure published in 1946 by the Brooklyn Eagle

“Bushwick” A brochure published in 1946 by the Brooklyn Eagle

Bushwick (1946)

In the mid-1940’s, The Brooklyn Eagle published a booklet entitled “Bushwick,” as part of a series of six booklets for public school students about the history of Brooklyn townships.  Bushwick has a long history dating back 300 years.  On August 1, 1638, the West India Company bought from the Indians the land that comprises the old town of Bushwick for “8 fathoms of duffels cloth, 8 fathoms of wampum, 12 kettles, 8 adzes, 8 axes, some knives, corals and awls.”  The town was chartered by Peter Stuyvesant in 1661 and named “Boswijck,” meaning “little town in the woods.”

Bushwick proper, which includes part of Ridgewood and which lies roughly between Flushing Ave. and Jamaica Ave., north of Broadway, has changed the least o the three villages and is predominantly residential.  Its population is about 140,000. Bushwick Ave. is one of the most beautiful residential streets in the country and the area around the old Dutch church at Himrod St. is reminiscent of an old New England village.

Modern subway facilities now serve the Bushwick section, making it a more attractive place than ever in which to live. It is readily accessible to all parts of the city and to eastern Long Island.

Bushwick, a brochure published by The Brooklyn Eagle (1946) [Part of series entitled The towns that became Brooklyn : Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Brooklyn, New Utrecht, Gravesend].


The Bushwick village square, no date (source: BUSHWICK bythe Brooklyn Eagle)

The Bushwick village square, no date (source: BUSHWICK bythe Brooklyn Eagle)


Only by embracing the lessons embedded in our city’s history can we avoid repeating the failed policies of both the recent and distant past, and have true clarity about what action is required to correct today’s public policies. The Poor Among Us is not just a history; it is a foreboding and a call to action.

—Ralph da Costa Nunez, co-author of The Poor Among Us


The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City - See more at: http://www.icphusa.org/Bookstore/Featured/#sthash.knKu2jPf.dpuf

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City – See more at: http://www.icphusa.org/Bookstore/Featured/#sthash.knKu2jPf.dpuf

Last month, The New York Times ran a much-read and discussed series of five articles entitled “Invisible Child,” profiling 11-year-old Dasani (pseudonym), a homeless child living with her family in the decrepit Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood where there are also million dollar homes.  According to the source notes for the series:

Andrea Elliott, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, began following Dasani and her family in September 2012. The series is written in the present tense, based on real-time reporting by Ms. Elliott and Ruth Fremson, a photographer with The Times, both of whom used audio and video tools.

Throughout the year, Dasani’s family also documented their lives in video dispatches from the Auburn Family Residence, which does not allow visitors beyond the lobby. Ms. Elliott and Ms. Fremson gained access to the shelter to record conditions there.

Mayor Bill de Blasioreferred to Dasani and her neighborhood to illustrate the economic disparity that exists in New York when he announced his appointment of Lillian Barrios-Paoli as his Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services by saying:

The story of this one young lady, Dasani, I can tell you–having criss-crossed the city and talked to all sorts of people in the course of this week–that it’s been gripping to a lot of people. It’s been gripping to all of us who are part of this transition. It’s not that we didn’t know these problems exited before, but to see them through the eyes of one child and one family brings it home in a very forceful way. (source: politicker.com)

One of de Blasio’s priorities as mayor will be to address New York City’s homelessness crisis and to change the way the city treats its poor, recently putting out his Five Point Plan to Reduce Homelessness.

Homelessness is a social issue at the forefront of New Yorkers’ minds.  The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) has launched two indispensable resources to help the public understand this complex and important issue, a book and a website.

The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Homelessness in New York City by Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO of ICPH and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Ethan G. Sribnick, senior research associate at ICPH is a new book, published by White Tiger Press, that focuses on New York’s poor children and families.  According to the book’s press release:

Conditions that perpetuate homelessness and poverty today have deep roots in America’s past. The Poor Among Us explores the world of New York’s poor children and families, from the era of European settlements to the present day: their physical and social environments, the causes of their poverty, and the institutions and social movements that evolved to improve and regulate their lives. This comprehensive history examines the successes and failures of past efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness, providing the historical context that is often lacking in contemporary policy debates.

Poor Among Us uses more than 100 photographs, etchings, and maps to bring the reader face-to-face with the experience of poverty and homelessness throughout New York City’s past and present. Dozens of accounts of children and adults — from those experiencing poverty firsthand to the philanthropic reformers working on their behalf — provide a window into what it was like to live during each time period.  Click here to read an excerpt from the book.

At the end of the 19th century, Jacob Riis did this with the publication of How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890), a groundbreaking early publication of photojournalism that documents squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. Like Poor Among Us, Riis used the power of images to illustrate and underscore the terrible plight of “how the other half lives.”


Boys Wait in the Children's Aid Society Offices (image: nypl)

Boys Wait in the Children’s Aid Society Offices (image: nypl)

PovertyHistory.org is a new interactive Web site launched by ICPH detailing New York City’s long history of poverty and homelessness that “investigates public policies that have shaped the lives of poor and homeless New Yorkers. With comprehensive timelines, analytical maps, striking images, primary sources, and informative essays, the site is a valuable resource for students, teachers, service providers, and policymakers with an interest in the history of these seemingly intractable issues.”

Photo from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (image: getty images)

Photo from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (image: getty images)

One hopes that the work of ICPH, as well as the recent reporting in The New York Times and our mayor’s new initiatives will open the eyes of a public who, though aware of New York’s homelessness and poverty problems, often feels powerless to effect change and thus often look away instead of facing the issue head on.

Read a discussion of How the Other Half Lives from The Big City Book Club hosted by Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/category/big-city-book-club/

View a slideshow of Riis’ images: http://news.yahoo.com/photos/how-the-other-half-lives-photos-capture-new-york-slums-in-1890-slideshow/


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Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City by Constance Rosenblum

Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City by Constance Rosenblum

Writing my last post about Gracie Mansion and whether or not the de Blasio family will stay in their Park Slope brownstone or move to the Upper East Side (they are moving) got me thinking about homes in general in our great city.  More than anyplace else in the United States, it seems that where you live says a lot about who you are, that your New York address and your New York identity are somehow inextricably linked.

In her book, Habitats: Private Lives in the Big City, Constance Rosenblum, veteran New York Times writer, former editor of the now defunct City Section as well as the Arts and Leisure section, presents forty portraits of people and their New York homes, ranging from rent-controlled apartments to mansions to low-income housing projects to brownstone buildings perhaps much like the one the de Blasios will soon vacate.  These portraits, expanded from a selection of Rosenblum’s long-running Habitats column in the Real Estate section of the Times, give us a glimpse into the diverse ways people define domestic life in 21st century New York City.

The following are excerpts from Rosenblum’s book, a must-read for all of us New Yorkers who are forever obsessed with the never-boring topic of New York real estate and who are forever curious about how our New York neighbors, from across the street to across the river, live their domestic lives behind their curtains, blinds, and wrought iron gates.


Habitats 1Unlike so many City Islanders, she doesn’t own a boat; boats make her seasick.  She has, however, plunged enthusiastically into island affairs.  She’s active in the work of the City Island Community Center and, even more than she might have imagined, is savoring the small-town feel and feeling warmly welcomed.  “I’ve felt very comfortable here,” Ms. Gotlieb says.  She admits that she’s hardly a clam digger, the local term for people born on the island.  “I’m very Manhattanish,” she says.  “but I feel I’ve been embraced as a local.” (44-45)


Habitats 2

One of the two Beaux-Arts windows in the living room—eight foot-wide half moons that stare like giant empty eyes onto the intersection of Broadway and Bleecker Street—is pocked with a semicircle of bullet holes.  Mr. Hinman suspects that they date from the years the law commune that served the Black Panthers had its headquarters on this floor. (63)


Habitats 3

Because Ms. Lewis can’t afford separate quarters in which to make and sell her creations, her apartment does triple duty as home, work space, and showroom.  During the day, the pendants, chains and earrings that she laboriously fashions by hand glitter in the sun that pours through the large window in the living room.  At night, under the inviting glow of the brass chandelier and matching sconces, these same items look rich and festive.  It’s a cliché to say that walking into this little apartment is like stepping into a jewel box, but the image is irresistible.  (105)


Habitats 4

If she wanted, Ms. Flowers could probably live somewhere else; with a relatively secure government job, she has options.  But the idea of moving seems never to have crossed her mind. …”This is a place filled with great people who work hard every day to raise a family and put their kids through college,” she says.  “And the families stick together.  One thing about Gowanus Houses: there’s no problem going up to the parents and telling them if a kid seems to be in trouble.  In that way, it’s like the old days.  It really does take a village.” (159)


Habitats 5

Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, and the rest are in attendance partly because faith plays so critical a role in the family’s life.  Ms. Kenraj’s father, Pandit Vishnu Sukul Kemraj, is a Hindu priest, and her two brothers, 12 and 22, are following in their father’s footsteps.  But it’s largely thanks to Ms. Kemraj’s mother, Chandra Sukul Kemraj, that the family ‘s living room feel like a lavishly appointed place of worship, or as Ms. Kemraj sums up the situation with both affection and understatement, “My mother lives in her own dreamy little world.  And what you see in this house is the result.” (171)


Habitats 6

In 1956, the year Dwight Eisenhower was reelected to the presidency, Elvis Presley was burning up the airways, My Fair Lady was packing them in on Broadway, and Clairol was posing the eternal question, “Does she or doesn’t she?” an Italian-American couple named Zachary and Mary Sansome bought a two-story brick house in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (180)


Habitats 7

This time of year, the house is lavishly decorated in preparation for Mr. Burke’s annual Christmas party.  Fir and tinsel garlands drape the walls and mantelpieces, and a huge tree hung with ornaments, many of them antiques, presides over the back parlor.  Nor is Christmas the only occasion Mr. Burke plays host to a large gathering.  His White Party in the spring is a major social event on the island, lavishly covered in the society columns of the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper.  At his Plantation Barbecue in the fall, men in high boots and feathered hats and women wearing hoop skirts and carrying fringed parasols feast on barbecued chicken, baked beans, and corn bread.  (203-204)


Read a recent interview with Constance Rosenblum in The Architectural League of New York’s Urban Omnibus.

Also by Constance Rosenblum:

Rosenblum, Constance. Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Print.

Rosenblum, Constance. Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000. Print.

Rosenblum, Constance. More New York Stories: The Best of the City Section of the New York Times. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Internet resource.

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Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City's  Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence by Ellen Stern

To move, or not to move, that is the question, for the de Blasio family.  They have not yet decided whether or not they will move from their Park Slope home to the Upper East Side where the official New York City Mayor’s residence stands overlooking the Hell Gate Channel in the East River, and they will probably not make any decisions until Chiara deBlasio, the mayor-elect’s daughter, comes home from college for Thanksgiving later this month.

Gracie Mansion was home to New York City’s mayors for most of the twentieth century, beginning with Fiorello H. LaGuardia in the early 1940s, but it has not been used as a residence since 2000, when Mayor Giuliani moved out so that he could live with his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan, who could not live in the mansion due to a stipulation stating that the tax-payer funded house may be used only for official business and only house public officials and the mayor’s family, even for one night.  Giuliani’s successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg never resided in Gracie Mansion.

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

Brochure for the Museum of the City of New York in Gracie Mansion, which opened in 1923 (page 31)

The mansion has not always been the Mayor’s official residence, however.  In Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence, author Ellen Stern recounts the history of the residence.  The merchant and shipowner Archibald Gracie built the house in 1799 as his country estate until he sold it in 1923 (for $20,500), after which it was still occupied as a residence until 1896, when the City integrated the house and the land surrounding it into Carl Schurtz Park.  From 1924 until 1936 the building housed the Museum of the City of New York, after which it was shown as a historical house until 1942, when the house began being used as the official mayor’s residence after a major renovation.  The house was recently restored by Mayor Bloomberg, who dubbed it the “People’s House” in 2002.

From the book’s preface:

Gracie Mansion, an exquisite relic and unique political showcase, has come full circle.  Built over two hundred years ago by Archibald Gracie as a country retreat in which to entertain the noble and notable of his day, it has been splendidly restored by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as a place in which to entertain the people of today, including the many city workers who contribute so much to New York’s well-being. (page 11)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

Gracie Mansion, ink on cardboard by Abram Hosier, ca. 1830-1883 (page 112)

A good portion of Stern’s lavishly illustrated book is dedicated to the Mayors themselves, beginning with Fiorello H. Laguardia and ending with Mayor Bloomberg, and their relationships to Gracie Mansion.  These very telling stories reflect the different and varied characters of each mayor.  A few excerpts:

Fiorello H. Laguardia

As the first mayor of New York to occupy an official residence, LaGuardia relished the grit of his job but chafed at the nobility of his home.  From the day he moved in to the day he moved out, he persisted in calling it not Gracie Mansion, but the Mayor’s House or Gracie Farm. (page 49)

John V. Lindsay

To celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the mayor and his twin brother, David, Mrs. Lindsay and her sister-in-law threw a surprise party.  “John loved belly dancers,” so they hired a belly dancer.  But first there was a small dinner for close friends in the dining room, and the birthday boys got cowboy hats. (page 72)

Edward I. Koch

“If you’re the mayor,” he says, “everybody wants to come [to Gracie Mansion], so it wasn’t hard to get some of the brightest and most interesting people in town.”  One of these was Woody Allen, who in 1989 cast Mayor Koch as Mayor Koch in “Oedipus Wrecks,” his segment for New York Stories.  Another was Mother Teresa, whom he sent home with a freshly baked batch of his chef’s chocolate chip cookies. And then there was John Cardinal O’Connor, who, upon the death of Koch’s father, came to sit shivah at Gracie Mansion. (page 81)

Michael R. Bloomberg

Today’s mayor has much in common with yesterday’s merchant.  Both men came to New York from out of town to make their success in business and then, with deep pockets and bountiful inventions, to make changes for the common good. (page 95)


Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

Mayor Bloomberg reading in the library at Gracie Mansion (page 95)

The question remains, will Mayor Bill de Blasio continue the tradition that began at the dawn of this century of New York City mayors living in their own private residences (as they did before LaGuardia moved in)?  Or has the past 13 years been an aberration in a longer standing tradition of Gracie Mansion as the White House of New York City?

According to at least one New Yorker, Kyle Smith of the New York Post, the answer is clear: Anybody running for mayor of this town is already living in New York. Why uproot mayors from the streets and send them to live in Green Acres? They should have to walk around the garbage mountain at the curb just like the rest of us.


Further reading on Gracie Mansion:

Black, Mary, and Joan R. Olshansky. New York City’s Gracie Mansion: A History of the Mayor’s House. New York: Published for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, 1984.

London, Mitchel, and Joan Schwartz. The Mitchel London Gracie Mansion Cookbook. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Stern, Ellen S. Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City’s Mayoral Residence. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2005.

The Bowery Boys: Gracie Mansion: How a bucolic summer home survived a couple wars, a society feud and a few live-in mayors

Huffington Post: Gracie Mansion Slideshow

Gracie Mansion in popular culture (from Wikipedia):

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Today’s guest post by Benjamin Feldman of The New York Wanderer describes, step by step, one of his many journeys through the streets and archives of New York City in search of, what?- a pot of gold, buried treasure, the lost ark—call it what you wish.  In the tradition of Indiana Jones, he is driven to uncover the past, or, in his words, he seeks veracity.  A chance encounter with a de-accessioned lantern slide leads him down a windy road that leads uptown and  back down again, to the Bowery.


lantern-slideA Miner’s Lantern

By Ben Feldman



People constantly ask me this question: Why are you learning modern Hebrew? Why did you learn Yiddish? Why is it so enticing to you, that old newspaper article, that strange lantern slide? I listen, and then I stare off into space, speechless. All I can think of is that corny phrase my superannuated Yankee torts professor, Willis Livingston Mesier Reese, taught us at Columbia Law School. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. These people ! I meet their Why? with equal vigor: I have no idea how anyone with a brain in their head could not be fascinated by the things that enthrall me. And it’s not as if I expect universal interest in my pursuits. What amazes me is the rarity of passion itself. It’s the least common denominator of intellectual fanatics, this overarching symptom of a wonderful disease. I hope to die from it.

As a child, and now as a so-called grown-up, the prospect of finding buried treasure continues to thrill me. Whether it’s a wind-blown bank note on the sidewalk or hardware scavenged in the street as I bike my way through New York, whether salvaged furniture from Yorkville trash piles or scouted-out scuz bars on the Brooklyn waterfront, I’m always up for a casual encounter with windblown wealth.

At Green-Wood Cemetery’s History office, I’ve stumbled upon a mother lode. You might think that working among the dead would be creepy. Quite the contrary. Imagination grows best in a quiet room. There among gentle, living souls I’ve found my looming mill, factory of dreams and recollection. High above Gowanus rooftops, threads spin tightly on whirring bobbins, shuttles shooting back and forth. Memory and anticipation, warp and woof, I weave a precious psychic cloth.

Wednesdays are my special days. I work mid-week in a hyper-chilled room with a view out over one of the “Public Lots” where hundreds of unrelated folks lie peacefully. In a locked cage I sort and catalog paper ephemera and random objects. My deal as a volunteer is unbeatable: there’s one for the boss, and one for me. I take my sweet time, reading and dreaming, enveloping myself in a comforter of knowledge. At the end of the day, I leave the storied brownstone gates laden with gifts, my mind overflowing with new-found riches. Six weeks ago, though, I got extra-special lucky. Opening a bubble-wrapped tiny parcel, I held in my hand an object unlike any I’d seen before.

Wherein lies the power of a simple piece of tinted glass? Some ink, a bit of silica, a century old, it was plucked from the refuse by an E-bay entrepreneur and sold for a pittance to my hungry historian friend Jeffrey Richman. After a cursory inspection, the questions began to flutter in my mind like feathers spilling from a bursting old bed-pillow:

What is that big fat stone in the foreground ?
Where was this taken and what year was it?
Who are these window-shoppers?

One question encircled all the others. In it perhaps lies an answer to the complained of Why? Embedded in the passion that drives me is a core of curiosity, the desire for something more than knowledge. It’s veracity I seek. With every query I repeat, How can I know? How can I be sure?

Excitement’s flammable vapors are invisible and odorless. One dasn’t light a match when I get in this state. Some people race Harleys, their pipes blazing, cylinders roaring. Others head straight for the gym. Flexing and spinning, they push their limits, seeking to conquer, finding out just how far they can go. I’ve a different Nautilus contraption, though, albeit inchoate, one more akin to the littoral kind. In each of my finds lies a swirling darkness, crustacean mystery. I hold them close and hear briney whispers. They’re as common as sea-shells, these gilded invites, cleverly disguised as chance encounters. They’re free for the taking. Who needs a Benz?


Lantern slides are small glass plates, positive images that were projected in auditoriums in the 1800s in Europe and America by traveling showmen. In Harrisburg and Lower Podunk, Carlsbad and Yukhupetz-ville, lantern slide shows offered the masses the Eight Wonders of the World, theatrical tableaux. In the days before motion pictures, scenes that only the wealthy and well-traveled could experience first-hand were brought to life for common people, first with oil-lamp projectors, and then electricity.

After I blinked to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my eyes focused on my new treasure and the search for answers began. Look at the clothing the man and boys wear. When was it stylish and who could afford it? Knickers: there’s the very first clue. And a bowler on the man, his jacket short and snug. With that I could bracket things, narrow the window. Experience told me, it’s the turn of the 20th century. But where are they standing and what is that stone, stuck in the sidewalk in the foreground?

A faded label on the edge of the slide got me off to a healthy start. The Museum of the City of New York somehow de-accessioned this slide: the label marks it as part of a collection once maintained there. So it must be New York City, this funny old scene. That tan stone column looks like a milestone, but where in New York did such a thing stand, as late as maybe 1900?

Some bell went a-ringing deep in my cranium: I’d heard of these stones and seen one, I thought, up on the 7th floor at New York Historical Society. Two minutes on the internet confirmed my memory. And then came an historian’s choicest moment: The original site of this particular stone, which I now could fix in front of 216 Bowery, I found misidentified in authoritative texts.

The Boston Post Road dated from early colonial times, and at least nine milestones marked the Manhattan portion of its route. Three of them are on display at NYHS, where the audio guide claims that they date from the early 19th century. I’ve no reason to contest this information (the stones at NYHS may not be the originals, which were in all likelihood placed along the Road during the previous century) but the lantern slide tells me that unless milestone #1 was relocated before the photo was taken, its home was different than the placement along the Bowery, south of Canal Street, that I found quoted in several research sources.

Fever erupted in my brain, so I hopped on my bike and raced downtown. I had to see where the stone once stood. 216 Bowery lies far north of Canal Street; on the west side of the Bowery between Rivington and Prince. How the apparently erroneous location of milestone #1 came to be accepted is anyone’s guess. I’ve got the goods on it now I think…

Like wrestling a slippery, angry hog, it’s best to come at the dating question for this slide from as many angles as possible. “I. Silverman – Picture Frames” gleams from inside the showcase window on the right hand side of the image. What can we know from these simple block letters? The shabby storefront and modest use had screamed Bowery to me even before I checked out the milestones. An hour at the NYHS’ hushed library yielded the story for me forthwith.

Trow’s Directories are a cornucopia, and they led me straightaway to the truth. I can see him now, Mr. Israel Silverman, making his way to his fancy new frame shop. There Silverman was in Trow’s in cold hard type, starting in 1902, living and working on the Lower East Side for almost a decade. He made his home on East Broadway, then on Eldridge, with his shop on Chrystie in ’02 and ’03. In 1908 Silverman’s shop made it over to the Bowery. Probably a step up, better foot traffic, more out-of-towners. I blew the image up on my computer. Just look at that rolling vitrine, out on the sidewalk, holding its stock of framed prints of hunting scenes and other genteel images. Even cold-water tenement walls in sweatshopper’s walk-ups could use a bit of goyish class. The Bowery in those days was also the center of a low-class entertainment district. Think of Times Square in recent decades. Storefronts beckoning to the unsuspecting; “Art Treaures” and “Antiques” vying for window space with the latest in electronics gray-goods deals.

It’s the left-hand window in the slide that truly grabbed me, though. Despite the slides’s tattered paper label that mentioned the milestone as the object of interest, the theater broadsides you see in the window of what must be 214 Bowery are the reason I stumbled upon this gem. My buddy Jeff bought this slide on e-Bay when he searched for items with a connection to Henry C. Miner, one of the many eminences entombed in Green-Wood in ornate mausoleums.

Giant block letters scream the message to passersby: MINER’S THEATER “The Bowery Hall of Fame” OUR PATRONS DEMAND WEEKLY AMATEUR PERFORMANCES EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT. MINER’S METHODS WIN. I had no idea what these words meant, notwithstanding their imposing scale. Down below, with blurry capitals, another line peers out from the glass. ENORMOUS ATHLETIC JUBILEE ! WEDNESDAY NIGHT ONLY APR. 15. It must have been fisticuffs: Jim Galvin vs. Young Sharkey is a featured match. Again bells rang: I knew the name Sharkey, so off I ran again to the internet. I’d no idea that arcane boxing history was so easy to find.

Sharkey, Sharkey: Jack Sharkey, that’s the name. My mind had not failed me: he beat Max Schmeling in ’31 for the world heavyweight title. Held it for one year ‘til Primo Carnera whipped him in ’32. Sharkey was the only guy to fight Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. But wait a second… Wouldn’t Jack Sharkey have been too young at the turn of the century to be doing prize fights at Miner’s as “Young Sharkey?” Jack was born in 1902, so I guess it could be the same guy if the photo is from 1917 or so. But it seemed unlikely. Back to the salt mines.

Turns out that many, many fighters went by the appellation “Young” back in those days. “Young Sharkey” could have been one of several guys. Website boxing records are enormous. Date, ring site, combatants, decision after enumerated rounds: if you type in a name at Cyberboxingzone.com, you peek at a world that’s vanished today. Another site devoted to pre-WW II boxing in Britain lists 16 fellows by the name of Sharkey who boxed in the years 1913-4 and/or 1920-1939, three of whom went by the nickname “Young.” I fixated, though on someone else: one of the most famous American boxers in 1910, memorialized in cigarette and candy premium cards, was Tom Sharkey.

Tom-SharkeyI would have bet that this is the guy advertised in the Miner’s poster as “Young Sharkey,” but another internet source made me stop short. Tom Sharkey was born in 1873, hardly young even by 1900. And his fight career had a large hiatus during the years 1904-1923. Wikipedia and Cyberboxingzone.com make it clear that Tom Sharkey’s ringside moniker was “Sailor Tom,” so my best guess is that Miner’s put up a Sharkey wannabe against Jim Galvin, another pug whose modest turn of the century fight career is verifiable.

Joe Wagner, also a featured pugilist at Miner’s that week, is an easier case: Wagner was active in New York during 1908-17, fighting in the Bronx, Albany, and Brooklyn. Another 1910 collectors card I found on e-Bay shows Wagner in classic pose.

Joe-WagnerThe funnel narrows on the date of the lantern slide photo when you look at the date advertised for the “Athletic Jubilee” in which Wagner and Sharkey (Young or not) went a few rounds. Wednesday April 15th. Reverse perpetual calendars are handy things. 1903, 1908, and 1914 had such a date. Wagner’s career probably didn’t start ‘til 1908. Israel Silverman’s frame store is not listed in the 1914 editions of Trow’s directories. QED, we have a winner: 1908 is the date of the lantern slide, in all likelihood.

Miner’s Bowery Theater touted in the broadside as “The Bowery Hall of Fame” was perhaps the most famous of the Miner performance halls in New York. Harry C. Miner got his start in New York after Reconstruction, managing theaters for other owners as well as owning and operating eponymous establishments. His Bowery hall at #165 (the number varies a bit over the years) appears in Trow’s by 1879, and the structure still stands on the east side of the boulevard, just south of Delancey Street. Home today to a carpet store and known as #169, Miner’s Bowery was soon joined by Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre at 312 8th, and by the People’s Theatre, erected by Miner at 201 Bowery in 1883.

English-language productions were a fixture on the Bowery starting in the late 1820s, but tides of Germans, Jews, Italians and Chinese changed the tongues heard on local stages as these immigrant swarmed into the neighborhood later in the century. By the end of the 1800s only two English language houses remained. German theater had already folled the wholesale exodus of its fans from the Lower East Side’s Little Germany to Williamsburg, Bushwick and uptown Yorkville. An unquenchable thirst among “nativist” Americans for low-class vaudeville and risque tableaux kept the box-office humming at the oldest Miner establishment with devotees from throughout the metropolitan area. Though its second Bowery location closed and moved to the Bronx, Miner’s Bowery remained a neighborhood staple, with amateur nights showcasing future legends well into the 20th century.

amateur-night-at-miners-rt-sizeGeorge M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Weber and Fields, and Eddie Cantor all made their debuts at Miner’s Bowery, where one Friday night in 1903 “give ‘em the hook” was heard for the very first time. Long periods of darkness and foreign languages finally took over the house, and Miner’s tenure on the street ended ingloriously when the building burned in 1929.

Walk down the Bowery now day or night; it’s hard to imagine all that once was. The screech of the Third Avenue elevated drowned out even the heartiest calls from the masses of sailors and drovers, gamblers and pimps who swaggered and staggered from Park Row up and back to Cooper Square. Even the drunks and the whores are mostly gone, their empty bottles of cheap wine and sorry trade now supplied elsewhere. Nowadays, an eerie quiet descends on the post-rush hour Bowery from Canal north to Houston, after traffic down to the Manhattan Bridge plaza slackens. Things get slow and sometimes still, though hipsters have started a small rebirth. Out at Green-Wood’s Dell Water shimmer, Henry Clay Miner sleeps in peace. The roar of the greasepaint makes the only sound.

Henry-Miner-rt-sizeWhat can you find when you turn a rock over? Worms by zillions live under the loam. Why would you do it, kick that stone over? You see some mud, some dirt and bugs. I see rubies, sparkles of gold.

Why? they ask me. I just stare. It’s pointless to try, I can’t explain. Res ipsa loquitur, close your eyes. Come with me, I’ll show you where…


This post was originally published November 22, 2006 on The New York Wanderer


Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969.  His essays and book reviews about New York City, American history, and Yiddish culture have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, and Ducts literary magazine.  Read more about Feldman and his work on his blog, The New York Wanderer.

street book coverDid you ever wonder after whom Bleecker Street or Abingdon Square were named?  Is Union Square named so after Civil War soldiers?  Was there a spring running down Spring Street?  New York’s history can be gleaned from the history of its street names as outlined in Henry Moscow’s The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins, one of several books available about the namesakes of our city’s streets.

Here are excerpts from a few of many interesting ones:

Abingdon Square

The Namesake: Charlotte Warren, a pre-Revolutionary War Greenwich Village belle, who became the bride of the Earl of Abingdon.  Here father was Admiral Sir Peter Warren, a naval hero and New York social lion, and her mother was the beautiful and wealthy Susannah de Lancey. (page 20)


The Namesake: Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, bouwerij, to which the road led from the more settled parts of New Amsterdam,  The farm’s main house stood between 15th and 16th streets, just east of First Avenue.  (page 29)

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

The mansion of Sir Peter Warren, through whose property Bleecker Street ran.

Bleecker Street

The Namesake: Anthony Bleecker, an early 19th-century Greenwich Village literatus.  The street, the land for which was deeded to the city in 1807, already ran through the Bleecker family farm.  … Bleecker was a friend of Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. His prose poetry appeared in a variety of periodicals during some thirty years, and Bryant once reported that Eliza Fenno had left town in 1811 simply to get away from Bleecker’s puns. (page 29)

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

William Bedlow Crosby (1786-1865) painted by Samuel Lovett Waldo

Crosby Street

The Namesake: William Bedlow Crosby, early 19th-century philanthropist.  When both of his parents died two years after his birth in 1786, Crosby was adopted by his mother’s uncle, Henry Rutgers.  Crosby inherited the Crosby wealth and devoted his life to good works. (page 42)

Rivington Street

The Namesake: James Rivington, publisher of the pro-British newspaper Royal Gazette in New York during the Revolutionary War. …Because the paper printed both sides of every poitical issue, an unprecedented practive, its plant was wrecked by patriot extremists and put out of business.  Under British occupation of the city, Rivington resumed publication, and supported the King.  Rivington Street was named for him during thewar.  The street name was retained and Rivington himself was allowed to stay after British evacuation because he publicly repented his Tory sympathies and because, it was said, he had secretly aided Washington’s spies in the city.

Spring Street

The Namesake: a spring that originated there, at West Broadway, and once served as a source of water for residents.  (page 96)

Union Square

The Namesake: the junction of many roads and streets there. The square was named Union Place in 1808, when the commissioners who were laying out the city onthe grid plan decreed that the area should remain open.  It was renamed Union Square in 1832. (page 102)


This and other books about New York street names:

Feirstein, Sanna. Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

McNamara, John. History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names, Borough of the Bronx, New York City. Harrison, N.Y: Published in collaboration with the Bronx County Historical Society [by] Harbor Hill Books, 1978.

Moscow, Henry, and Thomas Tracy. The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins. New York, N.Y: Fordham University Press, 1978.

Rogerson, Don. Manhattan Street Names Past and Present. New York: Griffin Rose Press, 2013.

Ulmann, Albert. A Landmark History of New York: Also the Origin of Street Names and a Bibliography. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1906.

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here is new yorkAs I was looking though my bookshelf for something to read on the train, I noticed two slim volumes sitting quietly side by side: E.B. White’s Here is New York and Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York.  I grabbed them both and used my time on the subway to revisit them, one on the way uptown, the other on the way down.

These two works have found themselves in each other’s company before, no doubt.  They are, at least on the surface, ripe for comparison, in that they are both brief, personal love letters to New York City, though their authors are separated by, among other things, time and circumstance.

White’s essay, originally published as an article in Holiday magazine, and then in book form, was written in his sweltering hotel room during a visit to New York in the summer of 1949. He observes:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

colossus of new yorkWhite falls into the third category of New Yorks—born in Mount Vernon, he was a New York settler until 1938, when he moved to Maine.  Colson Whitehead, on the other hand, is a born and bred native.  On being a true New Yorker, he writes in his 2003 book The Colossus of New York:

You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, ”It happened overnight.” But of course it didn’t. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can’t remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Or 15, 25, 100 neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.

Being a native New Yorker myself, I can relate to Whitehead’s idea of having one’s own New York, how each person here sees his or her own story in the city’s streets, all of them unique and specific to that person.  I can also confirm that the starry-eyed transplants, the third of White’s New Yorks, give our fair city an energy that is unique to cities where almost everyone is from someplace else.  But I must protest when White asserts that “[i]t is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”

It is the very fact that we have all three of White’s New Yorks, the commuters, the natives, and the settlers, that this city has a passion that attracts the passion of others.  Without a perfectly-balanced cast of Whites, Whiteheads, as well as throngs of itinerant men and women in white shirts, the curtain would go down on the never-ending universal drama that is New York.  It is the constant ebb and flow of the tension and relaxation created by the intermingling of these three cities that allows New York to constantly generate the high-strung passion that is its life force.

Toward the end of Colossus, Whitehead writes that “Talking about New York is a way of talking about the world.”  In the micro you see the macro, or as White movingly observes:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

All this, for the price of two swipes of a Metrocard.


White, E B. Here Is New York. New York: Harper, 1949.
Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003

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A publicity pamphlet for The Sunwise Turn Bookshop (image: Make It New: The Rise of Modernism)

In her September 1, 2011 New York Times essay, “A Portal to 1920s Greenwich Village,” Jennifer Schuessler discusses the new online exhibition from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin entitled, “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.”  At the center of the exhibition is a door from Frank Shay’s 1920’s Greenwich Village bookshop that is covered with 244 signatures of the shop’s visitors.  It includes those of famous writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis, as well as neighborhood eccentrics and unidentified book enthusiasts and reflects the lively literary world of 1920’s New York.  Shay “not only sold and published books, but ran a circulating library, lectured on bookselling, edited volumes of plays for other publishing houses, and even won a prize for his window displays. Most importantly, he cultivated a community: publishers, writers, artists, book collectors, magazine editors, cartoonists, academics, book designers, theater directors and more.”

Also at the Ransom Center, though not part of this exhibition, are the records of The Sunwise Turn Bookshop, purchased by the Ransom Center in 1977.  Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Mary Mowbray-Clarke and Madge Jenison, was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 was concurrent with Shay’s shop.  One of the first bookstores in the U.S. to be owned by women, Sunwise Turn sponsored lectures by Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser, and Amy Lowell among others.  It was the first “gallery” to exhibit the work of the painter Charles Burchfield among other new artists of the time, which perhaps influenced the artistic tastes of their young intern named Peggy Guggenheim.

Of the store’s interiors, Madge Jenison writes in her memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling that they “intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book.  We were to conduct it like life, and it was to look like life.”  In the catalog for a past Ransom Center exhibition entitled “Make it New: The Rise of Modernism,” Edward Bishop explains that by lavishly decorating the interior of their store, the proprietors of Sunwise Turn were “creating a space for reading, not just buying books,” and that they “saw themselves as cultural missionaries in the capitalist jungle of Manhattan.”  Like Frank Shay, they also published books and worked hard to cultivate a literary community, but, in the end, the store was bought out by Doubleday and became part of the “jungle” it was fighting against.  Christopher Morley’s description of Shay’s store in his essay “Wine that Was Spilt in Haste” (1931) applies equally to its contemporary, Sunwise Turn:  It was too personal, too enchanting, too Bohemian a bookshop to survive indefinitely, but for five or six years it played a very real part in the creative life of New York.

Bishop, Ted. “The Sunwise Turn: The Modern Bookshop.” Make It New: The Rise of Modernism. Edited by Kurt Heinzelman. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Harry Ransom Center.  “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.”  Accessed October 11, 2011.  http://research.hrc.utexas.edu/bookshopdoor/theshop.cfm#1

Jenison, Madge. Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Portal to 1920s Greenwich Village.”  The New York Times. September 1, 2011.

This post originally appeared on 10/3/11.

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whalen 1The saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  This expression came to mind the other day as I was browsing in Housing Works Bookstore and came upon a book by Richard J. Whalen entitled A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York.  Whalen, a native New Yorker, originally wrote a shorter piece on the same theme for Fortune Magazine that was so popular, he expanded the article to a book-length diatribe about all the myriad things he feels are destroying New York.  Written in 1965, it is noteworthy that the complaints he had then are the complaints we still hear today in 2013.

The opening of chapter 3 reads:

New York shows alarming signs of spiritual malnutrition and death-by-inches. It is frowning, tight-lipped, short-tempered, the most nervous city in America.  It is a city without grace.  It is humorless, able to mock and taunt, but too tense to gain the release of laughter.  It is a city that cried “Jump” to a would-be suicide perched on a window ledge.

Richard J. Whalen

Richard J. Whalen

I, too, am a native New Yorker, and I happen to disagree with Whalen here, but I have heard this sentiment expressed by countless others, although usually from those who were born and raised in other, more peaceful and bucolic, places where people are polite, even if they don’t mean it.

Whalen opens the book with:

All but a few years of my life have been spent in and around New York City, but I cannot claim an intense feeling of identification with the city.  In a sense, one is cheated by being born here.  The newcomer never entirely recovers from his stunning first impression, while the native becomes aware of the city gradually and without a thrill of wonder.

whalenPoint well taken.  I do find newcomers to New York have a strong reaction to it, whether negative or positive.  The excitement in the eyes of those whose lifelong dream it was to move to “The Big Apple” is almost blinding, whereas this is all I ever knew, I thought everyone grew up riding graffiti covered-subways and having year-round access to the world’s greatest museums.

Here is another refrain, oft heard, especially from old-time natives:

New York exists only in he present tense.  Just as there is no sense of obligation to the future, so there is no feeling of pride in the past.  Although Manhattan is quite old—it was first settled in 1615—is, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, “a town without any attics.”  The city seems to regard the past with contempt and hastens to obliterate its heritage.

In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission New York was a newly established institution, and was born too late to save the old Penn Station:

Symbolic of New York’s self-destructive frenzy is the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. Now being razed to make way of a $120 million complex including a new Madison Square Garden arena, an exhibition hall, bowling alleys, and a thirty-three-story office tower.  This will be the fourth Madison Square Garden in eighty-five years.  There will never be another Penn Station.

I wonder what Whalen would have to say about our city’s current plans for Moynihan Station, an attempt to harken back to a time when trains arrived in terminals both grand and central.

What fun I had perusing this volume of complaints and criticisms that also contains thirteen illustrations by Feliks Topolski.  The jacket copy declares, “Here is a city of endless human discomfort, inconvenience, harassment and fear…one which strives and dehumanizes its inhabitants…a city destroying itself.”  Though obviously rather one-sided, Whalen’s prose is very readable and his arguments astute.  Had he been writing today, he would have made a first-rate blogger!

Whalen, Richard J. A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York. New York: Morrow, 1965.


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The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

The Stone Bridge, from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

One of the many perks of working at New York Bound Books is that I get to pore through lots of rare books about New York, for research and just for fun.  I recently photographed a few for our catalog that included several image of old SoHo, and when I say old, I do not mean when Dean and Deluca on Prince Street old, I mean when Canal Street was a canal old.

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

Title Page of the Valentine Manual 1865

The first image, of the Stone Bridge (see above) in 1800, is from the 1865 edition of the Valentine Manuals.  Officially titled The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, this series of books was commonly called the “Valentine’s Manuals” for David T. Valentine, the clerk of the Common Council who compiled the volumes that included the city’s annual reports and directories. (read more about Valentine Manuals here at New York Bound Books).

A little research produced an article entitled “The Old Stone Bridge at Canal-street and Broadway” by Capt. Walker Bicker in The New York Times about his memories of  the bridge and its environs in the early 19th century, published April 9, 1886:

Broadway was not paved beyond “the stone bridge” which stood where Canal-street now crosses Broadway.  This was a famous resort for us schoolboys.  It was considered “out of town”—all north beyond as well as the immediate vicinity was country, post and rail fences dividing the land into different sized parcels.  This bridge spanned a small stream which conveyed water from the Collect on the east side of Broadway (where now stands the Tombs) to the west side, where was an extensive meadow covering most of the ground from Broadway to the north River and from Lispenard-street to Spring-street.

Here’s another image of Broadway, just one block to the north, in 1824.

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Corner of Broadway and Grand Street, 1824 from The Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (1865)

Perhaps even more enlightening than the Valentine Manuals is Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure that lists buildings, apartments, apartment hotels, tenements, and stores to be sold at public auction on June 17, 1929.

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure


513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure

513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street from Edward W. Browning’s New York Real Estate Brochure


This brochure contains a lot for sale at “513-519 Broadway through to 84 to 94 Mercer Street,” a plot that contains three buildings on Broadway, two of which go all the way through to Mercer Street, that would bring in an estimated whopping $80,700.00 in rent when fully occupied, presumably annually.  I found a recent article on Curbed about a unit in this lot for rent today:

Hank Azaria, best known for doing his voices on “The Simpsons” (Moe, Apu, Chief Wiggum among others), told the Wall Street Journal that he’s renting out his loft at 84 Mercer Street for a cool $16,000 per month. For that moolah you get a 4,000 square foot loft with 3 bedrooms. He picked the place up from photographer and director Cindy Sherman for $4.25M back in 2005, but he plans to spend a lot more time on the West Coast.

If a renter will pay $16K per month for a loft, imagine how much one of those retail spaces fetches!  I pride myself on being pretty good at math, but I’m not even going to attempt to figure out the percentage of appreciation between 1929 and 2011.  (And I don’t know if Azaria is BEST known for his Simpsons voices, fantastic though they are.)

Last, but not at all least, here is a newspaper clipping from February 9, 1907 of a picture of The Hall of Science, “where the freethinkers foregathered seventy-five years ago.”


This building on Broome Street (probably between Mott and Elizabeth)  was purchased for $7,000 by educational reformer Frances Wright in 1829. According to the Encyclopedia.com entry on Wright:

Commencing a career as a lecturer, she bought a Baptist church and renamed it the Hall of Science, housing a lecture hall, a secular Sunday school, and a bookstore for free-thinkers. Wright’s lectures challenged evolving concepts of domestic ideology when she explained the experience and ideals of Nashoba, criticized evangelical revivals, and advocated education and equal rights for women. Her favorite topic was educational reform. She proposed a “guardianship system” through which state government would establish district boarding schools, where Americans could be raised for social equality through a curriculum that instructed all children in free inquiry and the physical sciences. Wright found admirers in New York among the reformers and artisans who comprised the city’s Workingmen’s Party and who also advocated enlightened public education and such issues as the ten-hour workday, abolition of imprisonment for debt, and attacks on the privileges of banks and capitalists.

Three random items.  Three SoHo locales.  Three interesting stories.  All in a day’s work.


This post originally appeared on The SoHo Memory Project on December 12, 2012.

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