Friday, October 16, 2020

Then and Now: Big Top Theater and Circus Cinema, NYC

A Change of Habits

Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, in the 1970s randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north on Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, during the 1970s. 
Times Square is one of the great tourist attractions in the world. Tourists come from around the world to walk through it and admire the lights and the architecture and the hustle-and-bustle. It may look very similar to the way it used to, but in truth, it has changed dramatically in the last 40 years.

The Times Square area has been cleaned up quite a bit during the last few decades. "Hustle" had a completely different meaning in the Times Square of the 1970s. During the city's dark days, the porn industry invaded the area in a big way. It wasn't hidden away, either, it was right there out in the open. You've heard of Broadway theaters, well, the Broadway theaters of the 1970s were not just showing "Man of La Mancha" and "Chicago."

The corner of 49th Street and Broadway is right on the fringes of Times Square. It's just a short walk from Madame Tussauds and the Disney store. Great place to bring the family these days.

Well, the area serviced a completely different clientele back in the day.
The Big Top Theater at Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, around 1984 randommusings.filminspector.com
Located at 1604 Broadway were two theaters that easily could be mistaken for just one. The more obvious theater with the big marquee was Circus Cinema. It showed films for the heterosexual raincoat crowd throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Somewhat obscurely located to its side was a completely different experience, "Big Top Theater." This was entered via a stairway just to the south that led to a separate theater above Circus Cinema. This catered to a same-sex clientele. So, the building catered to a broad spectrum of people looking for something a little different than "The Aristocats" and "Star Wars."
The Big Top Theater at Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, around 1984 randommusings.filminspector.com
Just looking at the advertisements that appeared in all of the normal newspapers of the day (such as the New York Times, Newsday, you name it) gives you some idea of the types of shows shown at the Big Top. "New! Live! Go-Go Boys!" reads one advertisement. This was all out in the open, with the ads in the theater section near the back of the newspaper. Yes, those were different times.
The Big Top Theater at Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, around 1984 randommusings.filminspector.com
"Men Between Themselves" was not a World War II film - I think. Actually, I don't know when it was set, but I have a feeling the setting was likely Fire Island or Key West. But, who knows.
Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, ca. 2020 randommusings.filminspector.com
Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, ca. 2020 (Google Street View).
These days, the raunchy theaters are almost all gone (there may still be one or two over on Eighth Avenue, I'm not entirely sure). The scene above shows how the same corner looks recently. Just to verify that this is the same location, notice the medium-sized brown building in the background of the photo at the top of this page. I've zoomed in on it below just to verify the location.
Broadway at 49th Street, NYC, ca. 2020 randommusings.filminspector.com
A close-up of the building in the background of the original 1970s photo. This is from ca. 2020 and it hasn't changed at all (Google Street View).
One of the themes of this blog is that despite the fact that NYC streets and buildings look the same as in the past, the world around them has changed. It now is a completely different world even though in some ways it looks the same. Times change, people change, but in New York City, many of the buildings stay the same.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of our other pages if you liked this one!

2020

Monday, October 12, 2020

Then and Now: Horses in Manhattan

A Subtle Change in the Heart of Manhattan

Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza, 59th Street in NYC, in 1979.
A casual comparison of old and new photos of midtown Manhattan might not show much change at all aside from vehicles, clothing fashions, and the like.  Many buildings there have lasted for 100 years and may last for 100 more years. However, subtlety does not bother us, we're going to uncover a very subtle change in this article that reflects changes around the seemingly permanent buildings and streets.

The above photograph is from 1979 and shows Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. This is one of the most well-traveled locations in the city, providing a rare midtown break from the grid pattern and providing a grand entrance to Central Park from the southeast. The photo shows a very peaceful and sedate scene, with horse carriages lined up ready to take lovers and tourists on a ride through the park. While it might not be apparent at first glance, though, something very noticeable about that scene has changed, and very recently.
Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza recently, using Google Earth.
First, let's zoom in on Grand Army Plaza using Google Earth. We immediately see that the basic street pattern is the same, and the buildings look the same, too. That's the Plaza Hotel on the left, which was built in 1907, so it sure hasn't changed in the last 40 years. The Sherry-Netherland hotel (781 Fifth Avenue) barely visible on the right was completed in 1927, so that sure hasn't changed much. The same goes for the low Metropolitan Club building (One East 60th Street) just beyond it that was built in 1894. You get the picture: this is not an area of the city that has seen a lot of big changes recently. However, as noted above, something about it has changed, so let's get to that.
Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza recently, using Google Street View.
A very careful look at the 1979 photo shows, as mentioned early, a scenic lineup of horse carriages primarily for the tourist trade. The more recent photos ca. 2020 do not. This is not an accident or anomaly, the carriages no longer are there. Why they are no longer there leads us into the big change that has taken place recently.
Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza recently, using Google Street View.
While there are conflicting views and evidence as to how well horses fare in big cities, in recent years a movement has arisen to eliminate them for their own well-being. Montreal has banned carriages, and Chicago appears likely to do so shortly (if it already hasn't by the time you read this). New York City's current mayor, Bill de Blasio, tried to ban them outright in 2014 but failed. This may in part have been because carriage rides rank as one of the top three visitor attractions in NYC (Tripadvisor).
Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
Grand Army Plaza recently, using Google Street View.
While the ban failed, New York City enacted a rule in 2018 forcing carriage pickups to take place only within Central Park itself. As noted above, the carriages shown in the 1979 photo are parked on 59th Street. That is no longer an allowed pickup spot, and the rule now requires those carriages to be parked further north within the park itself at the entrance on 60th Street. This, presumably, protects them from traffic and noise.
Grand Army Plaza, NYC randommusings.filminspector.com
This may not seem like the most earth-shaking change, and you would be right. However, as we have seen, changes in this area are few and far between. The buildings are the same, the streets are the same, but the horses are gone for good. The setting may look the same, but the world is changing around it.

Thanks for visiting! If you enjoyed this page, please consider visiting some of our other "then and now" articles.

2020

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Then and Now: Vanishing Parking Lots

Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Bus Terminal, viewed from the southeast in 1979.
This is a review of how things compare to the past, not a polemic on changing city policies or anything like that. Looking at the changes of the city over time, though, inevitably brings up changing city polities and the impact they have on daily life. This is one of those instances. While we don't take a position on the wisdom of these changes, they are worth noticing anyway.

Above is a view of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan sometime during 1979 (from the looks of it, during the winter). It is taken from the southeast and shows the intersection of West 40th Street and Eighth Avenue. People familiar with the city know this is about a block west of Times Square, though most tourists probably never go over to see it. If you're not travelling by bus, there's really not much reason for a tourist to visit this area.

Incidentally, nobody actually calls it "The Port Authority Bus Terminal" unless theyr'e trying to sound formal. It's just the Port Authority to most New Yorkers. If you say you're heading to the Port Authority, everyone will understand where you're going.

I'm going to dissect part of this photo that you're likely not noticing and discuss how that reflects a changing truth about New York.
Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
Viewing the Port Authority Terminal from the same angle we can see that it looks pretty much the same. Let's get a little closer.
Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
We can see from this view that the Port Authority structure is the same as it was in 1979. There has been some superficial work on the exterior, but not a lot has changed. Basically there it was, and there it is, and that is that.
Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
One thing that has changed, though, is the parking lot on the southwest corner of the intersection. In 1979, it was just a parking lot. You may not know this unless you drive in the city, but parking has changed a lot in New York City in the last 40 years. And that uncovers a larger truth about NYC.
Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
Public surface parking lots are disappearing in Manhattan, victims of condo development and growing official disfavor of motor vehicles. Nowadays, getting a private parking spot is considered one of the pricey perks of buying a condo and is very hard to do otherwise. Since the condos themselves have been one of the prime causes of disappearing public lots, this has worked out well for the condo developers.
Port Authority in 1979 randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
Things have changed drastically regarding parking since the 1979 photo was taken. It used to be that developers were required to provide parking because, you know, the United States was a car culture and people needed their cars. Private developers in much of the city were actually required to provide a parking space for four out of every 10 apartments in their buildings. This led to a lot of land set aside for lots.
Port Authority in randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
However, this changed completely in 1982, when the city effectively banned new parking lots south of 110th Street. Ever since, the number of parking spaces provided by developers cannot exceed 20 percent of the total number of apartments in buildings from Midtown down to Manhattan’s southern tip. In addition, a 35 percent cap applies to the Upper East and West Sides. So, instead of there being a requirement that a minimum number of parking spots be provided, now there is a limit on how many can be provided. You are not required to provide any at all. That's a big, but subtle, change.
Port Authority in randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
So, basically, everything has been conspiring against the parking lots that used to dot Manhattan. The city disfavors them, and the condo developers now can offer them as a "special perk" to their clientele - for a price. Believe it or not, some establishments now charge upwards of $200,000 for a parking spot. No more of this "$10 for 10 hours" stuff. You buy a parking spot just like you buy your apartment, and if you don't, you have nowhere to park except wherever you can find a space on the street. Good luck finding one nearby, and then you have to play the "alternate side parking" game and all that.
Port Authority in randommusings.filminspector.com
Port Authority Terminal recently (Google Earth).
Anyway, the former parking lot site is now home to the Beer Authority, considered one of the best beer gardens in the city. It's only a two-story building, probably because the property owner long ago sold the air rights to some nearby tower. This is the Garment District, and people like their beers and typical pub fare like chicken wings. There are over 100 beers on draft, in addition to a full bar. Now that's a nice selection! So, if you're a prospective tourist reading this, you may not be able to park your car, but you now can get your fill of beer!
Port Authority in randommusings.filminspector.com
View looking southeast from the Port Authority Terminal recently toward where the original picture was taken in 1979 (Google Earth).
Anyway, the point I'm making is that New York City is a very subtle place. A simple tourist snapshot from the 1970s compared with the current location uncovers some surprising truths about changing life in the city. A missing park lot may seem like small potatoes - but not when it uncovers a much larger and pervasive truth.

Many thanks for visiting! If you like this content, kindly consider visiting some of my other "Then and Now" pages.

2020

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Then and Now: Chinatown, NYC

Taking It Down to Chinatown

Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking west on Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s.
There are a lot of neighborhoods in New York City in each of the five Boroughs. Each can be a world unto itself. Even savvy New Yorkers may be completely unfamiliar with some of these neighborhoods even when they go by them all the time. To learn about them, especially in lower Manhattan, you need some reason to follow narrow, winding lanes that don't provide any kind of shortcut to anywhere. Here, we're looking at exactly one of those areas.

Some of the quainter streets in Manhattan are in the Lower East Side, and specifically in Chinatown. This area has never really been gentrified to the extent of points further north and south. Even Little Italy has become glitzier over time. However, you can walk down some streets in Chinatown and easily imagine yourself back in the 1970s.
Pell Street, NYC, in the 1970s randommusings.filminspector.com
Temple Garden had its own matchbooks.
Above we have a typical tourist snapshot of Pell Street, a two-block sidestreet off of the Bowery. Prominently shown is Temple Garden Restaurant. This was described at the time as:
a tourist-savvy spot, all red on red with “carved” Chinese intaglio, a long list of bartender tricks – from apricot sour to zombie – and a menu of current favorites from the Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Cantonese repertoires.
Never having tasted General Tso's Chicken at Temple Garden, it's impossible to comment on the cuisine. However, we can all appreciate a tourist trap catering to visitors wishing an "authentic" Chinese dining experience.
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
Pell Street, NYC, June 2019 (Google Street View).
Well, the street looks fairly similar. We know we're in the same spot from the red building on the far corner of that intersecting street up ahead on the left (Doyers Street). You'll notice all the fire escapes - another hint that this area hasn't changed much in the last fifty years. In fact, except for the signage, it appears very little has changed over the years since the original photo was taken. They have taken out the garish street lamps, but that's about it.
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
16 Pell Street, NYC, June 2019 (Google Street View).
But let's get back to the subject of the original photograph, Temple Garden. As you've no doubt noticed already, it is long gone. Pell Street is no longer a tourist destination, apparently. Its space now is occupied by a back rub place. And there we have today's lesson, the two truly enduring types of businesses in New York City are restaurants and... back rub joints. You can always do with a nice massage, right?
Pell Street, NYC, in June 2019 randommusings.filminspector.com
Pell Street, NYC, looking back toward the east (Google Street View).
I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Ordinary street scenes from the past tell a lot about the people of the time and how those residents have changed over time. Please visit some of the other pages in this series!

2020

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Then and Now: "You Belong to the City" by Glenn Frey

New York City as it Was and Is

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
A scene from Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City" music video (all screen captures courtesy of MCA Records).
Glenn Frey had a big hit in 1985 with "You Belong to the City." It was a typical mid-80s song that combined soulful sax jazz with a thumping techno beat. Off of the Miami Vice soundtrack album, the song peaked at number 2. It was held out of the top stop only by Starship's "We Built This City." It should have taken the top spot, but I guess showing Abraham Lincoln jumping out of his chair to Boogey was more in tune with the times than long, languid vistas of the Empire State Building. Anyway, it's a great song and I highly recommend it. However, for our purposes, I am going to zoom in on some of the evocative scenes from the video. To set the stage, the music video features Glenn Frey and a mysterious lady in blue who are both out on the town one night and find each other.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
West 42nd Street looking east from Eighth Avenue in 1985.
In the Frey video, there are several shots of West 42nd Street near Times Square. This imbues a "gritty" feel to the video. One of these shots shows the classic lineup of theater marquees on the north side of the street. It's a very artsy shot, you had to be at just the right angle to show all of the theaters in one shot like that. It probably took some time to compose that shot. Most of the theaters were, shall we say, somewhat seedy in the mid-80s. It was a very distinctive block and there was nothing like it anywhere else.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
West 42nd Street looking east from 8th Avenue (Google Street View, August 2013).
Today, 42nd Street has been transformed. That happened during the 1990s and was pretty much completed by the early 2000s. Gone are the adult films! Everything is Disneyfied! Isn't that wonderful?

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
The lady in blue finds a place to have a drink or two. Mysteriously, she has switched cabs, from one without a placard to one with a big blue one on the roof. Maybe she stopped somewhere else while Glenn was hoofing it downtown.
A key spot in the video is an unnamed bar where the Frey character meets a lady friend. However, the street address, 478, is shown. And that is our first clue as to its identity.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
The Glenn Frey character walks by the same bar that the lady went in. Incidentally, to walk from 42nd Street where he first spies the lady in blue down to West Broadway would have taken him the better part of an hour. I've done it, a nice walk, actually. It's a logical destination if you're just wandering downtown aimlessly taking in the sights.
Later, we find out what street that 478 is on when Frey walks by a sign that says "Central Falls" and spots the lady in the blue dress inside. Hey, I can add 1 + 1 and get 478 just like the next guy. Turns out to be 478 West Broadway and the bar's name indeed is "Central Falls." It was just south of Houston Street on the right as you are walking south. A February 8, 1985, dining guide article in the New York Times notes that Central Falls was "A cheerful and trendy restaurant with a generous bar and changing exhibitions by contemporary artists." It was open to 2 a.m. on the weekends, so a good place to go after the shows. These places with the big glass fronts and dinner and dining were a dime a dozen in the 1980s, but there's something to be said for going down to Soho for a drink.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
478 West Broadway (Google Street View June 2019).
Alas, Central Falls has vanished into history, a victim of rising rents after ten years in business. It closed sometime in the late 1980s. Now, that space has become another gallery along with all the other chic galleries on West Broadway. Maybe still a good place to pick up the ladies, though, who knows. If you're wondering "Why was it named Central Falls, anyway, that doesn't sound very New York City-ish?" like I was, well, I'm your hero because I have the answer! Central Falls was its name because it was run by a guy named Goldstein from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which just so happens to be next to a city called Central Falls. Why exactly he called it Central Falls and not Pawtucket I cannot say, maybe he actually lived in Central Falls even though he is said to be from Pawtucket. Anyway, everyone automatically knows that Pawtucket is in Rhode Island, but Central Falls could be, you know... anywhere. There's actually a book about Goldstein and his restaurants, "Flash in the Pan: Life and Death of an American Restaurant," by David Blum.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
"Tin Pan Alley" was an edgy bar on West 49th Street 
There is a brief shot of a canopy that says "Tin Pan Alley." At first, I thought it would be on the real Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street, but was mistaken. Tin Pan Alley Bar was located at 220 West 49th Street in what then was an SRO hotel. The bar was a popular hangout with people in the animators' union and the various seedy businesses in the Times Square area. Let's call a cat a cat, it was patronized by a lot of hookers, strippers (oh, excuse me, "dancers"), and transvestites. The bar was run by a woman named Maggie Smith who was a self-described "social activist." She ran it from 1978-1988 and supposedly had a gangster boyfriend who actually owned the bar and let his ne’er-do-well twin brother "run" it. The bar was staffed by a lot of people who later became famous, such as artist Nan Goldin. It was considered a cool hangout, and customers such as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth were happy to be seen drinking at the bar. It has been described as an anarchist lesbian punk rock dive bar.

Tin Pan Alley might be somewhere someone artsy would go after having drinks at, well, Central Falls. Well, there or Florent down in the Meatpacking District. In 1985, that is. But, I digress.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
The site of "Tin Pan Ally" on West 49th Street (Google Street View June 2019).
Tin Pan Alley Bar is long gone. The SRO has become a "luxury boutique hotel" and you may book a room there if you like. I find its name "The Pearl" to be a bit precious given its former occupant. Anyhoo... Tin Pan Alley is gone but not forgotten - it was the inspiration for the fictional Hi-Hat bar in "The Deuce," an HBO show that comprised 25 episodes and ran from September 10, 2017, to October 28, 2019. Whoever picked the locations for the Glenn Frey video certainly knew the edgy places of the time.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
The lady's abode is pretty easy to identify, as the street number is on the sidewalk now just as it was in 1985.
The number "200" is seen multiple times in the video associated with the lady's address. The distinctive entranceway is a dead giveaway as to the location, too. I mean, you don't get much more unique in Manhattan than having your street number built into the sidewalk. I'd love to know how they pulled that off, someone definitely had... pull.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
200 West 57th Street, NYC (Google Street View May 2019).
While the entranceway has been modified slightly, 200 West 57th Street looks virtually identical to the way it looked in 1985. I think it looks better with the flags and sconces.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
200 West 57th Street is on the right (Google Earth).
Anyone who knows New York City knows that West 57th Street is one of the most exclusive areas to live. This is the home of billionaires and celebrities. In some ways, it is posher than either the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side and certainly more exclusive than anything (sniff) downtown. In the 1980s, though, it was not quite as fancy as it has become.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1985.
The distinctive closing shot looks down 57th Street to the east. The tall building in the center is the iconic Solow Building. Constructed in 1974, it was one of the first non-rectangular skyscrapers in New York City.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking east from West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue (Google Street View May 2019).
 The Solow building is still there, though it no longer stands out for its height as it did in the 1980s. It has a very recognizable curved side facing the street and remains one of the most attractive buildings in the city.

Glenn Frey You Belong to the City randommusings.filminspector.com
The Solow Building (Google Street View June 2019).
So, that wraps up our tour of street scenes from the Glenn Frey music video for "You Belong to the City." Thank you for stopping in this edition of "the more things change, the more they stay the same. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did making it!


2020

Monday, September 16, 2019

Then and Now: First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC

14th Street at First Avenue, Manhattan

First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, in 1962, randommusings.filminspector.com
First Avenue at 14th Street, 1962.
One of the things I look for in old photographs is the subtle, telling detail that is almost never what the original photographer was thinking about. The photos that are the most interesting to me are those in which the buildings themselves are the same, but everything else around them shows an evolution which in some respects is a revolution in the culture of the people who inhabit them. I saw the above street scene from 1962 and it reminded me of the world that was. There are several subtle things in it that showed its age, and yet it seemed strangely modern as well. That is, the scene is the same as I think of it today, and yet there are enough telltale signs of when it was taken that are evocative of that time which you would not see today. So, I decided to do a comparison of First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, from 1962 to 2017.

First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
First Avenue at 14th Street, November 2017 (Google Street View).
The 1962 photograph was just an average street scene, and with those, it is always difficult to know what the photographer had in mind. There is nothing really distinctive about this location - no historic buildings or new construction or nicely framed apartment houses that might suggest what the photographer had in mind. For my purposes, that is perfect, because it just shows a random city spot which removes any "special" nature of the spot. This is just where ordinary people lived and worked and carried out their mundane affairs. In this blog, that's what we're interested in, not tourist snapshots of the Statue of Liberty. This spot was fairly easy to find because of the subway station, which turns out to be the First Avenue station (BMT Canarsie Line) for the L-train. That station opened on 30 June 1924. The buildings in the background are all the same - after almost 60 years! - and a few differ only in the color of their paint. So, we definitely are in the correct spot.

First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The west side of First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
Now that we've marked off the buildings as unchanged - which I find fantastic in Manhattan, but that's the reality - let's see what has changed. The telephone booth is gone, probably removed in the early 2000s as cellphone usage took off. The A&P has been replaced by a CVS. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company was at a peak in the early 1960s, but the growth of other food sources gradually ate away at it (sorry) until it finally ceased supermarket operations in November 2015. Back in 1962, drug stores generally were little places on the corner where you bought cough medicine and got your prescriptions. Now, they include big grocery sections - which suggests the replacement of A&P by CVS is not as big a change as appears at first glance. Of course, CVS charges premium prices for its groceries, but in Manhattan, it would be hard to tell the difference between "normal" prices and "premium" prices in the rest of the country.

First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The northwest corner of First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
In 1962, the building on the corner (at the extreme left of the photo) was a branch of the Union Square Savings Bank. While the bank is long forgotten, and, in fact, savings banks are pretty much forgotten these days, there is one very prominent remnant of this bank.

The old Union Square Bank building at 15th Street and Union Square, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The old Union Square Savings Bank building at 101 East 15th Street, NYC (aka 20 Union Square East), November 2017 (Google Street View).
That bank on the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue was a branch of the bank which was first established in 1905 on Union Square East. That building is still there and was protected by the Landmarks Commission on February 13, 1996. It is kind of a kitschy building in my opinion with its Corinthian columns, but, back in the day, banks went to great lengths to create an image of permanence and timelessness (if they only knew...). The architect was Henry Bacon, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., so he knew something about massive stone structures. That building is now the Daryl Roth Theatre, which gives a "postmodern theater experience." So, while the Union Square Bank branch on the northwest corner of First Avenue and 14th Street is now yet another pharmacy (right next door to the CVS, which tells you something about modern life), the bank itself has left something to remember it by.

First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking back at the spot where the original photo was taken, this is the northeast corner of First Avenue at 14th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
One other thing leaps out at me from the 1962 photo. Notice the men - they are wearing hats, including the man in the phone booth. That still was the style in 1962, long after John F. Kennedy's inauguration supposedly (according to common lore) made going bareheaded fashionable. Men wearing hats did not disappear at that time in 1961 but (as this photo proves) remained the norm well into the 1960s. There is one man without a hat in the distance, but I am guessing that he is one of the drivers of the two cars which appear to have locked bumpers and which may be why the photo was taken (or, he may just be crossing the street with the woman beside him). These are subtle changes from current times, for sure, but the subtle often reflects underlying societal changes that are massive.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Ordinary street scenes from the past tell a lot about the people of the time and how those residents have changed over time. Please visit some of the other pages in this series!

2019

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Then and Now: Greeley Square, NYC

Broadway at West 32nd Street, Manhattan

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 32nd Street and Broadway, NYC, in 1979.
While some neighborhood names in Manhattan mean little and were coined for purely historical or venal purposes (the "East Village," for example, came from real estate agents), others reflect the heart of change in the city. This change comes in a variety of forms, but in this case we are going to examine a demographic change. But, first, let's set the scene. Everyone who knows anything about Manhattan knows that Broadway cuts across midtown at an angle and forms several triangular parks. The most famous are Times Square and Herald Square, followed by a second tier that includes Union Square and Columbus Square (yes, you are free to quibble about judgments like that, I'm just giving you my personal take). However, there are some other such parks created by Broadway (which are all called "Squares" even though none of them is actually square) that get virtually no attention whatsoever except by local people. One of these is Greeley Square.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Greeley Square in 1971 (Hans Ketel).
You are never going to hear a tourist from Europe or China or any other far-off place say, "I really want to go to New York to see Greeley Square Park!" And yet, these small parks are invaluable for breaking up the monotony of the grid and preserving rare bits of open space. When I saw the above photo from 1979, I decided to see what the area looks like recently. So, I did a comparison of West 32nd Street at Broadway from 1979 to 2017. Doing this comparison revealed some subtle changes in the area of which you may be unaware.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 32nd Street and Broadway, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
As always, the first task is to find the right spot, which isn't always that easy. I spent a few minutes pondering where the 1979 photo was taken until I noticed the statue in the park. That is Horace Greeley (1811-1872), who coined the phrase, "Go West, young man." I could not get the exact same angle in the park itself, but I think we're close enough for our purposes of seeing what kind of changes have taken place in the area (and the park itself hasn't changed that much anyway - don't worry, Horace is still there). Another reason that we know this is the exact location is 894 Sixth Avenue (the building that angles off to the right), which is a lighter tan color now but definitely the same building. Off in the distance on the left is a grand old building which appears the same - we'll get to that down below. But, enough things line up between 1979 (and 1971, for that matter) and 2017/2018 to ensure that we are in the right spot.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Greeley Square, October 2018 (Google Street View).
So, does our comparison tell us anything about New York City, which is one of the major themes of this exercise? Yes, it does, but what it tells us is subtle. In the 1971 photo, everything looks like everywhere else in Manhattan. There is a sign for Olden Camera, reflective of the fact that this area was part of the Photo District of Manhattan 50 years ago (previously, it had been down near the Flatiron Building). In the 1979 photo, everything still looks pretty similar, but there is some obvious Asian lettering on 894 Broadway, with the same phenomenon visible in the most recent photographs. That is our tip-off to what has changed. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Korean businesses began moving into the area, which prior to that did not have any particular connection to Asia (Chinatown is far downtown). Some sources will tell you that this did not happen until the 1980s, but here we have photographic proof that it began before then. The Asian influx became permanent and was in full swing by the 1990s (I remember a Korean friend taking me to a Korean restaurant on 32nd Street near Greeley Square in the late 1990s). Cementing the change, this area now is known as "Koreatown." So, that is our biggest change between then and now, though it may not be obvious from the photos. The buildings may stay the same, but the people using them change.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
1234 Broadway, November 2017 (Google Street View).
To me, the most interesting thing in the scene is the ornate building in the background, so I'm going to focus on that next. It turns out to be the 1868 Grand Hotel built by carpet baron Elias S. Higgins. Now, 1868 might be just yesterday by European or Chinese standards, but in New York City, that's getting back there. New York City hadn't really extended very far north by 1868s, and this section of Broadway was still known as Bloomingdale Road (until 1899). So, we are talking about some serious history, an outpost for families (it was designed as a family residence, though it eventually became a purely guest hotel) who wanted to live in the 'burbs but close enough to "the City" to visit the shows. It would have housed the 19th Century version of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.

Grand Hotel at West 31st Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The Grand Hotel ca. 1870 (Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library).
The style of 1234 Broadway is French Second Empire style, then in vogue during the reign of Napoleon II. If the Grand Hotel looks as if it belongs in Paris, that is purely intentional. The distinctive two-story mansard roof remains in place into the 21st Century, though in my humble opinion it looked more glorious when it was first built (there's a reason for that). The area changed drastically during the 20th Century, going from a classy area (somewhat like the nicer areas of the current Upper West Side) to a run-down industrial area. By the 1970s and 1980s, the Grand Hotel was run-down and a single room occupancy eyesore called the Clark Apartments. While that sounds terrible, it was a place for penurious students to get through college, so it served its purpose. Before some enterprising builder (cough cough Donald Trump) could move in and raze the decaying building, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (NYLPC) in 1979 designated the building as a landmark. The 1980s owners painted the roof and marble "to protect it," but that caused damage (which irritated the NYLPC, because they didn't request permission) which has never really been completely corrected. However, my understanding is that this is an ongoing situation that may eventually result in complete restoration.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Greeley Square sometime after 1912. The caption on the postcard reads, "A view of Broadway from Greeley Square to Times Square showing the upper end of the most important retail district in the world. The McAlpin Hotel, largest in the world, is shown in the foreground." The McAlpin was built in 1912, which allows us to date this somewhat.
Now, we've looked at this area in the 19th Century and then in the 1970s. However, we've skipped about 100 years, and I can't leave this location without giving at least a nod to the tremendous change in the neighborhood that came and went in that century. The 1878 Sixth Avenue El ran up to the west of Greeley Square, dominating the square. The subway (then the IRT) went underground in 1939 when the El was razed. Omitting this chapter in the area's history would have been a travesty because the El practically defined the area for six decades. However, the El came and went, and only the buildings are left behind.

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The east side of Greeley Square, November 2017 (Google Street View).
We can see that the reddish 1912 McAlpin Hotel, now an apartment building known as Herald Towers, is still there on the east side of Greeley Square Park. Also remaining in the foreground is the 1897-1898 Hotel Martinique (apparently a play on the owner's name) apartment house, now the Martinique New York on Broadway, Curio Collection by Hilton. It is in the French Renaissance style and provides a nice counterpoint to the nearby Grand Hotel.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. While not very well known, the Greeley Square area has a lot of fantastic history and has changed to meet new needs. Please visit some of the other entries in this series!

2019