Thursday, April 22, 2021

Then and Now: Downtown Beirut, NYC

Gone But Not Forgotten

Downtown Beirut ca. 1987 randommusings.filmiinspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1987.
To an out-of-towner or pretty much anyone unfamiliar with the ways of the East Village, the above street scene probably seems fairly mundane. A bunch of ratty shops in some ancient tenement, long gone and long forgotten.

To people who do know a thing or two about New York City and the East Village, they know exactly why this photo was taken.

Downtown Beirut!

We're going to do a quick then-and-now of First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1980s randmomusings;filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, the 1980s.
What was Downtown Beirut? A bar in Manhattan. You can describe it in various ways, but probably the most accurate is that it was a classic dive.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, 1981 randmomusings;filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, ca. 1981.
As a dive, Downtown Beirut had a lot of company. Some of its peers were Hogs and Heifers in the Meatpacking District (1992-2015 RIP), Scrap Bar, Union Square’s bar/restaurant the Coffee Shop (1990-2015 RIP). and, well, I could go on for a while. But this isn't about them, it's about Downtown Beirut.
NIGHT AT DOWNTOWN BEIRUT, video by Mike Enright
A long city block from Tompkins Square Park, Downtown Beirut acquired an offbeat reputation. If you stayed late enough, some girls in halter tops and boots might get up and dance on the bar. The jukebox was renowned for having a great selection of tunes you were pretty unlikely to hear elsewhere. Want to play some pinball at 2 a.m.? Downtown Beirut was your spot.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990.
For such a quirky East Village dive, a lot of people still remember Downtown Beirut fondly. For instance, it was featured in "Come Here Often?: 53 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar" by Elissa Schappell. Mike Enright made a video about it. The New York Times included it in a 2012 list of "Manhattan's Most Mourned Bars." When you start poking around on the Internet looking for beloved New York bars of the past, "Downtown Beirut" always seems to pop up. That's no small feat considering the thousands of little hole-in-the-wall joints that come and go in the Big Apple.
Downtown Beirut, NYC, ca. 1990 randommusings.filminspector.com
It's 3.a.m., do you know where your children are? A clip from a deleted scene from "Night At Downtown Beirut," video by Mike Enright
Unless you've lived in New York, you might not understand how these neighborhood joints served a need. The heavy metal crowd could hang out together at Scrap Bar, the models could sit at Coffee Shop's amazing bar and hold court and then walk over to a table and have some grilled shark, and the punk crowd could spend a few hours at Downtown Beirut. It wasn't that far from CBGB, you could catch Patti Smith and then walk over and play some pinball. It was nice to have a place to just be among like-minded folks and maybe all sing "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" together in July just because you could. Why? Well, if you have to ask... No, that doesn't make sense, now does it, it's not supposed to, nothing makes sense in the middle of the night after you've downed a few with friends.
First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, New York buildings are eternal, especially in the East Village. The building was built in 1920, so it just celebrated its centenary. Yay 2020! It will probably still be there in 2120, too, because those old buildings never go away. It's what gives New York its charm.

As you can see above, "Downtown Beirut" is no longer with us. It closed in 1994 around the time of Rudy Giuliani's election as mayor. That location now houses "Yu's On First," where you can get a nice back and foot rub. If you go to Yu's Facebook page, it tells you that "We Believe Massage Is the Way to Physical Relaxation." Downtown Beirut did the same thing, in its own way. So, as we like to say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I hope you enjoyed this random walk through the East Village. Please visit some of our other pages!

2021

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Then and Now: Drive Down 5th Avenue

Driving Through the Past

Park & Tilford, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 57th Street, New York City, in 1938. Home to a Park & Tilford grocery store.
Fifth Avenue in New York is one of the most timeless parts of the city. But just how timeless is it? I found this video of a drive down Fifth Avenue ca. 1938, late in the Great Depression but before all the changes wrought by World War II. So, I'm going to compare this 1938 video of Fifth Avenue to recent times.
Tiffany & Co., 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
You may know the old Park and Tilford location better as its 1940 replacement, Tiffany & Co.
The video shows both sides of Fifth Avenu, first the west side bordering Central Park, and then the East Side which was (and remains) primarily residential above 57th Street. Let's do some comparisons on how it looked in 1938, and how it looks today.


Just to get oriented, this is what the video shows (apparently one vehicle shot this while rolling three cameras in different directions, or they drove three times over the same route using one camera).

Start with the camera facing directly north ca. East 75th Street:

East 74th 0:22
East 73rd 03:34
East 72nd 0:45
East 71st 0:55
East 70th 01:05
East 69th 01:33
East 68th 01:47
East 67th 01:50
East 66th 01:58
East 65th 02:08
East 64th 02:16
East 63rd 02:26
East 62nd 02:58
East 61st 03:09
East 60th 03:16
East 59th 03:28 (Central Park South)
East 58th 03:39
End ca. East 57th

Switch at 03:49, west side of Fifth Avenue

65th Street 04:30
64th Street 04:42
West 60th 05:27
West 59th 05:38
West 58th 05:46
West 57th: 06:00
06:12 I believe that big maroon car is a Packard ca. 1937.
West 54th 06:26

Switch to the east side of Fifth at 06:52. Start just south of East 74th Street.

East 73rd Street at 06:56
East 72nd Street 07:14
East 71st Street 07:23
East 70th Street  07:30
East 69th Street 07:37
East 68th Street 07:44
East 67th Street 07:53
East 66th Street 08:18
East 65th Street 08:26
East 64th Street 08:33
East 63rd Street 08:42
East 62nd Street 08:49
East 61st Street 08:56
East 60th Street 09:32
Park & Tilford Grocer at 57th Street 10:00
E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers at East 55th in St. Regis  10:16 (Gattle closed in 1940).

Okay, let's look at a few specific scenes and see how they've changed.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, 1938.
First, we'll look at the very start of the video, looking north from around 75th Street. Let's look at how it looks recently.
75th Street randomusings.filminspector.com
Looking north at 75th Street, May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, well, what do you know. It hasn't changed much at all. That apartment building on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue hasn't changed at all (the corner building is 1 East 75th  Street, and the one beyond is 944 Fifth Avenue). That's Manhattan, folks, in the residential areas you could go over 100 years without seeing much difference.

All right let's look at another spot. This time, we'll look at the corner of East 60th Street.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in 1938.
Okay, let's see what has changed in 80 years.
60th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 60th Street in June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, it doesn't look like much has changed at all. That building on the northeast corner of 60 Street is the Metropolitan Club at One East 60th Street. It's had some renovations and facelifts over the years, but it's the same building that it has been since 1893. That's not likely to change anytime soon, either.

Let's move down by a little further, just down a block or two.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in 1938.
Now, this time we do have a noticeable change.
58th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 58th Street in June 2019.
The most obvious change is that now we can clearly see the Sherry-Nederland. It was built in 1927, and during the 1930s it was obscured by a wall of sandstone buildings. Now, that entire block of buildings is gone, replaced in 1968 by the General Motors Building and its plaza at 767 Fifth Avenue.

Let's just say that I'm not a big fan of razing all those classic old buildings between 58th and 59th Streets and replacing them with... that. The pointless plaza on the right destroys the effect of Grand Army Plaza on the left, which somewhat resembled an old town square when it was hemmed in on three sides. Now, it's just another open space.

Moving along, let's take a closer look at Central Park. While it may seem like it's just a big, you know, park, there actually are quite a few buildings in it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in 1938.
Well, that's certainly an old, castle-looking building. It sure looks spooky! Let's see if anything's left of it.
The Arsenal, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
The Arsenal in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, there it is! Well, obscured by trees, but trust me, it's all there.

There's actually a debate about how many buildings should be allowed in Central Park. The city could make quite a bundle, for instance by allowing in some fast-food restaurants there. They'd make a killing, too, because there are tons of hungry joggers and walkers and sunbathers in the Park all the time. However, so far those efforts have been resisted by people who think a park should be a park and not an open-air food court.

But the Arsenal at 64th Street has a unique claim to being in Central Park because it was there before there even was a Central Park. It was built in 1847-51 to be a, well, an arsenal. They designed Central Park around the Arsenal, and there is stays. Fortunately, they build such buildings to last back in the old days, and there are more of them remaining than you might think (such as the Archive Building in Greenwich Building). Anyway, the Arsenal was there in 1851, it was there in 1938, it was there in 2019, and it's likely to be there in 2200, too. It houses the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the nearby Central Park Zoo. If you want to reserve a ballfield or a tennis court, that's where you go.
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in 1938.
Fifth Avenue at 57th Street is one of the most desirable retail areas in the world. Judging from the 1938 scene, it was pretty fancy back in the day, too. The stately maroon car, incidentally, appears to be a 1937 Packard (correct me if I'm wrong).
57th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north toward 57th Street in June 2019.
Well, the look of this block obviously has changed quite a bit. That happens in retail sections of the city. However, in the 1938 photo, look on the other side of the street (57th Street Street). That building hasn't changed much at all. It is the Beaux-Arts style Bergdorf Goodman Building that was built in 1928. Now, if this video had been taken about a dozen years earlier, you would have seen the glorious Cornelius Vanderbilt II House. That is considered a long-lost treasure of New York architecture. But... the Bergdorf Goodman building is pretty memorable, too, and it's likely to be there for quite a while longer despite the 2020 bankruptcy of its parent company, Neiman Marcus.

Not everything was peaches and cream in 1938 despite all the fancy Phaetons and other signs of conspicuous consumption. The Great Depression was still in effect. Let's look at a subtle sign of it in our video.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in 1938.
The photo above shows a lovely Brownstone mansion that has seen better days. Those closed-off windows suggest that it has been abandoned and likely is slated for demolition. It's not the only one we see on our 1938 drive, either. I didn't hold out much hope that I would see it still there recently.
73rd Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
East 73rd Street in May 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, the brownstone is long gone, along so with many others. In its place is 923 Fifth Avenue built in 1950 and converted to condominiums in 1983. Can you imagine a boarded-up building at 73rd Street and 5th Avenue these days? Those were some hard times.

Let's look at an interesting edifice.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in 1938.
This wasn't one of your typical Upper East Side mansions of the 1930s. Let's see if it is still there.
70th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
70th Street in June 2019.
Well, there it still is! That's the Lenox Library, completed in 1877 by James Lenox to house his personal book collection. The Lenox Library was old already in 1938, it's still around, and it's still housing those books from James' personal stache.

Let's take another look at Grand Army Plaza, this time looking to the west.
Grand Army Plaza in 1938 randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza and the Sherman Monument at 59th Street, 1938.
Okay, so far so good. We have a nice, clear view of the plaza and the statue. Everything looks pretty grim, but then again it was the winter. Now, let's look at the same scene more recently.
Grand Army Plaza in 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, it doesn't look all that different. But the two images certainly don't look identical. A few things jump out at us. First, it's a lot more crowded in 2019. This wasn't just because of the change in seasons and it isn't entirely due to a growing city population. According to the Census Bureau, NYC's population was about 7.4 million in 1938 and 8.2 million in 2019, not that big a change statistically. The difference, I believe, is that air travel has made New York City much more accessible to domestic and foreign visitors. As any native New Yorker will tell you, tourists crowd the streets, especially on a sunny day. The city also has done away with that shack in the background.

There's another big difference. That statue in the center is the Sherman Monument. It stands now pretty much where it did in 1938, because it was put there in 1903 (and moved fifteen feet ca. 1913-1915) and protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as a Scenic Landmark on July 23, 1974. So, it's a permanent fixture of the plaza.

But the Sherman Monument definitely looks different, and there's a good reason for that. The city and country were poor in the 1930s and there was no money for fixing up statutes. It is a bronze statue, and corrosion turns bronze to a green/black color with age. Corrosion had worked its magic by 1938, and the statue stayed that way for decades. Nothing unusual about that, the same thing happened to the Statue of Liberty. The federal government fixed the Statue of Liberty in 1986, and the Central Park Conservancy re-gilded the Sherman Monument in 1990. Does it look better in bright gold or the old green/black? You decide. But the restoration is a sign of the rejuvenation of the city in the 1980s and 1990s.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in 1938.
Finally, just as the video fades out, the driver makes it down to 55th Street. That is the location of the St. Regis Hotel, one of the grand hotels of Manhattan. These retailers lease their space from the St. Regis hotel. As can be seen, in 1938 we can see two of those retailers on the southeast corner of 55th Street,  E.M. Gattle & Co. Jewelers and Kayser Hosiery.
55th Street, 5th Avenue NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
55th Street in June 2019.
Today, E.M. Gattle is long gone (it closed its doors in 1940). Kayser, on the other hand, is still in business as Kayser-Roth, though it long ago left its space in the St. Regis. Replacing them is Harry Winston, a top jeweler. As we like to say here, the more things change, the more they stay the same...

I hope you enjoyed this walk, er, drive down memory lane. If you did, please visit some more of our pages!

2021