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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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!


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Then and Now: Greeley Square, NYC

Broadway at West 32nd Street, Manhattan

West 32nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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!


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Then and Now: Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue, NYC

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, Manhattan

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC,
Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC, in 1972.
There are lots of areas of Manhattan that have gobs of history even though the tourists never seem to notice. One of these areas is lower Fifth Avenue, which has been its own separate community within the larger community of Manhattan for the last century. When I saw the picture above that was taken in 1972, it gave me that sense of seeing a truly classic part of New York City. While it was not taken at street view, I believe the location from which this shot is as interesting as the shot itself. So, I decided to do a comparison of Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, Manhattan from 1972 to 2018.

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC,
Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC, July 2018 (Google Street View).
Our first step always is to verify that we are in the right location. Despite the trees, we can see that the buildings along the left (west) side of Fifth Avenue match up. These include 20 Fifth Avenue (the reddish building with the rounded edges, completed in 1940), The light brown building just beyond (24 Fifth Avenue, completed in 1926), and 40 Fifth Avenue (the building with the fancy water tower in the distance, completed in 1929).  However, there's another way to verify that we are in the original location.

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC,
One Fifth Avenue, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
We can identify the exact location where the 1972 photograph was taken by looking up. The only building in the area that has the stone balconies shown in the original photograph is One Fifth Avenue, completed in 1927. Given that the photograph shows three balconies, we may assume that the photographer was standing on the fourth balcony in from the left (north) which is the double-balcony in the left-center of our 2017 photograph from Google Street View. As you can tell, only that floor has such balconies, so we know that the 1972 photograph was taken from the third floor looking north. We could probably further pin it down to an exact room number, but I think we're good just knowing the location.

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC,
One Fifth Avenue, looking from the south, a few years after its completion (Stern, Robert A.M. Gilmartin, Gregory. Mellins, Tomás. "New York 1930. Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars". New York. Rizzoli. 1987).
So, we can see that lower Fifth Avenue below 14th Street hasn't really changed much since around the time of World War II. I've been inside 1 Fifth Avenue (so have a lot of people, it's a co-op) when I was hunting for an apartment and was intrigued by its old-world glamor. It has all those art deco pre-war touches that are so evocative of Manhattan, such as the wedding-cake exterior, all sorts of little roofs in unexpected places, and dark wood paneling here and there. It's kind of a spooky place, at least from the outside. It's also one of the most overlooked treasures in Manhattan real estate. Well, it's not that overlooked, because it was included in the Greenwich Village Historic District established on 29 April 1969. However, it receives little attention from just about anyone from its residents and real estate agents despite its gloomy (in my opinion) magnificence.

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC prior to 1927,
One Fifth Avenue prior to 1927 (Daytonian in Manhattan).
This lower Fifth Avenue area of Manhattan was never "in decline." While other areas have gentrified, lower Fifth Avenue never needed to be. It sailed through the mean decades of the 1960s and 1970s without batting an eyelash. It retained the aura of Henry James' 1880 "Washington Square." Of course, the fact that it hasn't changed much means that some might consider some of the amenities of the apartments that haven't been completely renovated a bit... quaint. Think kitchens in the living room, that sort of thing (yes, I've actually seen that in the area). Prior to the construction of the current One Fifth Avenue, it was the site of the brownstone mansion of William Butler Duncan, which fit into James' genteel framework. Duncan's mansion and the residences at 3, 5, and 7 Fifth Avenue were all demolished to make way for the current monolithic One Fifth Avenue.

Fifth Avenue at 8th Street, NYC,
One Fifth Avenue from 8th Street, looking south in September 2017 (Google Street View).
So, someone at 1 Fifth Avenue decided to go out on their balcony in 1972 and take a quick snap of Fifth Avenue looking north. Little could they know that the scene would be virtually unchanged almost fifty years later. Whoever it was probably couldn't even imagine the 21st Century with its flying cars, robot servants, and fancy wireless telephones. But, when Manhattan gets something right, it keeps it for a long, long time, and that's probably how long in the future the scene will stay the same, too.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The residential areas of New York tend to change the least, particularly when they are well-built in the first place. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!


Monday, September 2, 2019

Then and Now: West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC

Broadway at 104th Street, Manhattan

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC,
Foodorama at 104th Street and Broadway, NYC, southeast corner, in 1980.
There is little question that the New York City of the mid-21st Century is more prosperous than that of the 1970s. No longer on the verge of bankruptcy, Manhattan as a whole has seen a surge of development and reinvigoration over those 40 years. When I came across the 1980 photo above, it reminded me of all the local grocery stores that once upon a time dotted the streets of Manhattan alongside the pizzerias and the dry cleaning stores and the electronic shops. The trash on the street also brings back those warm and fuzzy memories of a city on the verge of bankruptcy. But what does it look like today? Did they raze that run-down building, or is Foodorama still in operation about forty years later? To find out, I did a comparison of Broadway at West 104th Street, NYC, from 1980 to 2017.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC,
 104th Street and Broadway, NYC, southeast corner, in October 2017 (Google Street View)
The location is very distinctive, so there's no question that we are in the right location. The building at 2710 Broadway was built in 1930 and is bigger than it looks, with 19,155 square feet. Next to it to the right, just visible in the 1980 photo, is 2708 Broadway. Completed in 1925, it, too, is unchanged, though something seems to have been going on with some of its windows in 1980. Back then, West 104th Street at Broadway was a fringe area, rather rundown and with a poor reputation. All that has changed by 2017, with unmistakable signs of gentrification abundance. This building itself shows how much things have changed in this portion of the Upper West Side. The apparently vacant third floor now is a yoga studio and the little supermarket has become a language center. Even the pizza joint on the corner is gone, replaced by a health care facility.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC,
The east side of Broadway looking north between 103rd and 104th Streets in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
However, all is not lost for you food lovers! The Foodorama with its aggressive signs and downscale look has been transformed by a neat and tidy Gristedes just down the block. It's all very tasteful and subtle, the way upscale shoppers prefer. Subtle changes like that over time tell you a great deal about the changing mix of people in an area. Next to the Gristedes is a Santander Bank branch, similarly tasteful and low key. The parking meters are gone, the street now is relatively clean, there are little bike racks that actually are being used. Everything just looks tidier and more genteel. There probably wasn't a whole lot of demand for a yoga studio in this area back in 1980. The neighborhood has been transformed, and we didn't need to commission a $50,000 study to figure that out, just look at one street corner. It tells you all you need to know about the changing needs of the people who now walk the streets.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC,
The southeast corner of Broadway at West 104th Street, NYC in December 2017 (Google Street View).
Now that we've made the case for how much the neighborhood has changed, let's not overstate it. The buildings themselves are virtually untouched aside from removing some unattractive brackets for signs. However, there's still that skeletal billboard structure on top of 2710 Broadway, still unused in December 2017. The people change, but the buildings remain the same. They're just repurposed for the changing needs of the neighborhood. The truly startling thing about this comparison is how little the scene has changed but how much the vibe has been altered over 40 years.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Love it or hate it, gentrification has changed a lot of New York neighborhoods since the 1970s, and the southeast corner of Broadway at West 104th Street is a tiny illustration of that. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!


Friday, August 30, 2019

Then and Now: 29th Street at Park Avenue South, NYC

Park Avenue South, Manhattan

Park Avenue South, NYC,
Park Avenue South at East 29th Street in 1970.
Street names can be very confusing in Manhattan because they remain the same for many decades, then suddenly change for little or no reason. Today, we're going to look at one of those streets which has had a more successful name transition than many of the others. Park Avenue South is like the Cinderella of New York Avenues. It gets no respect but always seems on the verge of stardom. When I saw the above picture of Park Avenue South from 1970 with the big Pan Am Building in the distance, I wondered if all that promise and hope over the years had made a big difference. So, I decided to do a comparison of Park Avenue South from 1970 to 2017.

Fourth Avenue, NYC,
Park Avenue South (then Fourth Avenue), looking north from East 31st Street in 1890. The importance of the area is indicated by those newfangled electric poles that were just coming into fashion. The large building is the 1876 Park Avenue Hotel, and the smaller building next to it is the older Brandes Hotel. Note the streetcars coming out of the Park Avenue Tunnel at 33rd Street (from "New York Then and Now," Dover Publications, via Ephemeral New York).
Park Avenue South runs between East 17th Street (at Union Square) up to East 32nd Street in Manhattan. Above 32nd Street, it is simply Park Avenue. If that seems kind of arbitrary to you, well, it is. There is nothing about East 32nd Street that makes it some kind of marker between north and south other than the fact that the avenue name changes. This brings up the history of the name itself, which is a bit unusual. It was put in the 1811 grid map of the city as Fourth Avenue, which is its natural name given its position directly to the east of Fifth Avenue (at least along some sections, Madison Avenue is between them north of East 23rd Street). It continued happily as Fourth Avenue until 1959, when it was decided to rename it as Park Avenue South. However, only the 15-block stretch between Union Square and East 32nd Street was renamed to Park Avenue South. Below Union Square, it was and remains Fourth Avenue.

Fourth Avenue, NYC,
Union Square, looking north toward the future Park Avenue South, 1893 (Halftone Print).
This is one of those New York oddities where the city decides to rename an avenue for apparently no reason. I don't think anyone will dispute me when I say that "Fourth Avenue" does not have quite the cachet in Manhattan as Fifth Avenue or Third Avenue or Second Avenue. "Fourth Avenue" conjures up images of drab warehouses and 1800s department stores. There is nothing wrong with Fourth Avenue, but obviously, someone with enough clout wanted to separate the area north of Union Square from that name and associate it with the glamorous stretch of avenue north of Grand Central Terminal. The Park Avenue South area was so unfashionable for many years that it didn't even really have a neighborhood name. Everyone knows Greenwich Village and Gramercy and Chelsea and so forth, but Park Avenue South was kind of left out. In the 19th Century, this area was called Rose Hill, and that is still used occasionally. Rose Hill is the area bounded by 23rd Street to the south, 32nd Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the west, and Third Avenue to the east. However, it's still an area without an identity, sandwiched in between Kips Bay and Midtown South and Gramercy.

Fourth Avenue, NYC,
The future Park Avenue South at 23rd Street in 1893, showing the National Academy of Design (Halftone Print).
Sometimes, these name changes don't really stick, such as renaming Sixth Avenue to "Avenue of the Americas" during World War II. However, the name "Park Avenue South" seems to have caught on enough for nobody to still call it Fourth Avenue. This is probably because Park Avenue sounds more prestigious than plain old Fourth Avenue, a name which is tarnished a bit due to its close association with the Bowery. Whatever the reason, it became Park Avenue South and that is how people think of it today.

Fourth Avenue, NYC,
Looking north from 21st Street on the future Park Avenue South in 1903. Already, the street's character is changing into a wall of buildings, with construction cranes visible putting up even more tall buildings (Halftone Print).
In the 1960s and 1970s, though, the new name was not immediately embraced. There were stories of mail being misdelivered and misaddressed and people refusing to call their beloved old Fourth Avenue "Park Avenue South," which made it sound like it was in somebody's basement. However, the name did catch on, though old habits die very hard in New York City and you may still find some old-timers who refuse to call it anything but Fourth Avenue. There also are engravings of "Fourth Avenue" here and there on the old buildings. Manhattan has a long memory.

Park Avenue South, NYC,
Park Avenue South in the 1970s. This was one of the rare streets in Manhattan that had little trees lining its center median. Now, of course, there are trees everywhere in Manhattan (from "New York Then and Now," Dover Publications, via Ephemeral New York).
Whatever you want to call it, Park Avenue South was hot in the 1920s. That is when many of the buildings that line it were built. These have pretty much remained intact since then, with some additions near Grand Central Terminal. Originally built as office towers, many of these imposing buildings have been converted to coops and condos over the past 30 years. So, though the street may look the same, it actually has changed dramatically in terms of how these buildings are used in the 21st Century.

Park Avenue South, NYC,
Park Avenue South from 29th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
Now, Park Avenue South is an extremely hot area. Well, okay, at least tepidly hot. It is on the move, baby! It is full of new restaurants and businesses that cater to a completely new and up-and-coming clientele. However, it did not become hot due to the name change or the success of the businesses in those forbidding 1920s office buildings. Instead, all of those pre-war buildings with the big interior spaces turned out to be wonderful living spaces, something the original builders and the city officials who made the name change in 1959 never contemplated. So, instead of the insurance companies and ad agencies that had offices on Park Avenue South in the 1950s, now it is full of multi-million dollar apartments and trendy apartments for young lawyers and designers. That's real change in New York City, the kind you can believe in.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The streets may stay the same, even the buildings may stand for over a hundred years, but the lives of the people that inhabit them make deep and lasting changes in how they are used. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Then and Now: Astor Place, Greenwich Village, NYC

The Alamo in Astor Place, Greenwich Village

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC,
The Alamo in Astor Place, 1978.
If you are looking for a variety of experiences in New York, Greenwich Village is your place. There are a lot of quirks in Greenwich Village. Not bad things necessarily. There are just some ... things that are just there and don't make a lot of sense unless you want them to make sense. One of these is a big black cube in Astor Place, Greenwich Village. Astor Place is both the name of a very short street and of a state of mind. Oh, and also the name for the entire neighborhood and its subway stop. Anyway, I saw the above 1978 photo of the big black cube, sometimes called the Astor Place Cube, and decided to update the photo with a more recent view of the same scene. So, I did a comparison of Astor Place, NYC, from 1978 to 2017.

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC,
The Cube sometime in the 1980s, with the former Wanamaker's Store (now a K-Mart) serving as a backdrop (Courtesy Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation).
There is no way to talk about Astor Place without talking about the big black cube, so let's get right to it. The cube is called The Alamo and it was designed by sculptor Tony Rosenthal. He had it cast in a New Haven, Connecticut, foundry in 1967 before erecting it in what is now known as Alamo Square. It went up as part of the "Sculpture and the Environment" organized by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and was only intended to be temporary. However, locals liked it, so there the Alamo has resided ever since. It was restored in 1987 by the same New Haven foundry that originally cast it, and renovated again in 2005 to fix some broken parts, and then again in 2015-16 while Astor Place was being redeveloped. The Alamo is 1800 pounds (820 kg) of love, and people can twist it around on the metal pipe which rises up through its center. The Municipal Art Society placed it in the "Adopt-a-Monument" program, and its sponsor during the 1980s was Texan Dan Neale. The City takes very good care of the Alamo and repairs it regularly.

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC,
Astor Place, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
From starting out as a temporary exhibit along with about 25 other such sculptures during the Summer of Love, the Alamo has become a fixture on the border between the Village and the East Village. It's not really clear what it symbolizes, why it's called the Alamo, or even how long it can last. However, unlike the grand subway entrances of the past which were torn down ostensibly because they interfered with driver vision (nice excuse), the Alamo with its impenetrable 8'x8' Cor-Ten steel dimensions somehow has endured. Personally, I think they should have kept some of those cows from that famous street art exhibit circa 2001 and ditched the Alamo, but I will admit that the Alamo certainly does have a presence about it. Even if it's not clear what that presence is. But who am I to say? The people have spoken and they want the Alamo!

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC,
Astor Place, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
Well, enough about the big black cube. If you like it, visit Astor Place sometime and give it a whirl (literally). The massive building directly behind it in the photo directly above has a much longer history. John Wanamaker was a Philadelphia entrepreneur who was born in 1838 and basically invented the modern department store. He built 770 Broadway between 1903 and 1907 on an entire block between 8th and 9th Streets. Originally, this Wanamaker's was even bigger, with a sky bridge connecting it to the "main store" across 9th Street, but that part of the store closed down in 1954 and burned down in 1957 in a spectacular conflagration. It now serves as the headquarters for Verizon Media (which include Huff Post and AOL, among other ventures). K-Mart occupies the first two floors and the basement, where there is an entrance to the Astor Place subway stop. Incidentally, if you're shopping in New York, you should stop in K-mart, it has fairly reasonable prices on a wide assortment of typical grocery store goods as well as clothing and things like that.

Well, there is a lot more to Astor Place, but we'll get to the other stuff another time. Anyway, thanks for reading this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Astor Place has a lot of history, as do the buildings around it. The Alamo is a beloved Village treasure which basically does nothing but certainly does that in a unique way. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!


Then and Now: Gray's Papaya on West 72nd Street, NYC

Broadway at 72nd Street, Manhattan

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, 1978. 
We're going to travel to a couple of different places in this article because the history involved takes us there. Making comparisons between then and now can be a little bit like time-traveling. You see a scene long ago and then see it again much later and, usually, the streets and buildings are the same for the most part but the street businesses and other signs of habitation have all changed. When that doesn't happen, it comes as a bit of surprise, and that's what we have here. The photo above caught my eye because it offered a great window into the past, so I decided to do a comparison of the intersection of Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway, and 72nd Street, NYC, from 1978 to 2017.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, looking south in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
The scene has changed little in 40 years. The entrance on Verdi Square to the subway directly in front of us is an express station on the IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line of the New York City Subway. It opened in 1904. Two years after the original photo was taken, in 1980, this structure was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It is a heavily used subway stop that is a focal point of the Upper West Side.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, looking north in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
In 2002, the city completed a major renovation that added a new control house directly behind where the 1978 photographer was standing. It provides better access to the station but doesn't have the flair of the 1904 control house.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, southeast corner in October 2017 (Google Street View).
What caught my eye was the building on the southeast corner of 72nd Street and Broadway. Donohue’s Restaurant on the second floor has been replaced by a Sleepy's Mattress store. Jack Donohue, the proprietor, opened the restaurant in 1970 and passed away in 1995 at the age of 63. The two-story building is 2080-94 Broadway aka 176 West 72nd Street. It is a commercial building that dates from 1938. This is just within the Upper West Side/Central Park Historic District established on 24 April 1990, so it is protected. For reference, this is a couple of blocks from the Dakota on Central Park West. The street-level store, however, sticks out because it is the same in both the 1978 photo and recent Google Street View pictures. It was founded in 1973 at this location and has operated there continuously ever since. In fact, for a couple of years, this was the only remaining location of Gray's Papaya.

Gray's Papaya, 8th Street at Sixth Avenue, NYC,
The Gray's Papaya on 6th Avenue at 8th Street after it closed in April 2014.
People in the Village fondly remember the Gray's Papaya 402 Sixth Avenue at 8th Street, where you could get two hotdogs for a dollar back in the day. The papaya drinks weren't so hot, but at least they were cheap. Unfortunately, the Greenwich Village, a favorite of NYU students and residents of the area, closed in 2014. That left only the 72nd Street outlet as the last one until the chain opened a second location in 2016 at 612 Eighth Avenue, between West 39th and West 40th streets.

Gray's Papaya, 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC,
Gray's Papaya at its longtime location at 2090 Broadway at 72nd Street in November 2017 (Google Street View).
What really struck me about the 1978 photo was not the bust apparently in progress at the subway stop, nor the historic control house before it became, er, historic, nor the buildings beyond which also remain the same. It was Gray's Papaya on the corner because it somehow has survived intact when so many of its competitors like Nedick's have not. I think I may stop by and get a couple of dogs next time I'm in town.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. There's a lot more continuity in Manhattan than you might think. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Then and Now: Broadway and 23rd Street, NYC

East 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974. To the extreme right is the Flatiron Building, and to the extreme left is the Metropolitan Life Home Office building.
Some changes over time are subtle, and some, well, are not. One new building can drastically change the character of a view. When I saw the above 1974 photo, I didn't immediately recognize the location despite the fact that I lived with ten blocks of it for a full decade and still retain roots there. I finally figured out where it was by noticing at the extreme right of the photo that little ridge - that, I recognized. What is it?

The Flatiron Building at Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
A better look at the building on the extreme right of the original 1974 photo. Yes, that is the Flatiron Building at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, NYC.
Well, you probably knew that if you know New York City pretty well. It took me a few minutes, though, and I'm a native to the area. So, we have the right location, but it sure looks unfamiliar. So, I decided to do a comparison of Fifth Avenue at Broadway and Fifth Avenue from 1974 to 2017.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
The reason for my confusion became clear once I saw the current view. What has changed? Well, not much, just the addition of one building. It is Madison Green, 5 East 22nd Street, New York, NY. Madison Green - obviously named after Madison Square Park, which is to our left - was built in 1985. That was the height of a Manhattan building boom due to the near-term expiration of some generous property tax abatements. A lot of newish buildings in Midtown South and surrounding areas such as the Flatiron District date from 1984-86, which was not a particularly outstanding era for architecture but featured a lot of very big buildings. I've walked by that building a hundred times and never really notice it, so, at least from perspective, it's not that intrusive. It's just kind of bland and... there.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
Incidentally, that building over on the left hasn't changed in a long time. In fact, that building is even older than the Flatiron Building. That is the Metropolitan Life Home Office building (officially 1 Madison Square), completed in 1893 and renovated in 1957. The distinctive tower right behind it was added in 1911 and renovated in 1964. That has been the solid backdrop for Madison Square since the days of the original 1879 Madison Garden was demolished in 1890 to make room for it (yes, this is where the name Madison Square Garden comes from, even though Madison Square Garden is no longer anywhere near Madison Square).

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC,
The 1893 Metropolitan Life Home Office building, with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower behind it, September 2017 (Google Street View).
There's no question that Madison Green, a 29-story condo, has changed the character of the area. It dwarfs the Flatiron Building, though, of course, the Flatiron Building is iconic and can withstand the competition. How you feel about this kind of change probably depends on your own views about development. It's a fabulous location for residences, with many apartments looking out over Madison Square, others looking out over the East River toward Queens and Brooklyn, and others looking south toward the downtown and the World Trade Center. A lot of cities would try to frustrate this kind of development, but fortunately, New York City allowed it. All of those dwellings help to keep rents somewhat in check, though nobody will ever accuse the Flatiron District of having low rents relative to the rest of the country. And, if you must have a sense of that old-time view, you can still see that lonely water tower over on the right, reminding you of how things used to be before that big money rolled into the area.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. A massive new building like Madison Green may annoy some purists, but it rejuvenates a neighborhood and lets more people enjoy it. Please visit some of our other articles in this series!


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Then and Now: 34th Street at 8th Avenue, NYC

The New Yorker Hotel at 8th Avenue and 34th Street, Manhattan

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC,
The New Yorker, 8th Avenue at 34th Street, in 1979.
The skyscraper building boom of the late 1920s and early 1930s left an enduring mark on Manhattan. Some of it is very noticeable, such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, and some of it is a little more subtle. The New Yorker Hotel is one of those unique New York institutions which has survived while others have fallen by the wayside. Now officially called the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel, it is located at 481 Eighth Avenue in New York City. It opened in 1930 during the height of the skyscraper building boom and, like the others that arose around the same time such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, it is designed in the art deco style. When I saw the above photo of the New Yorker from 1979, I decided to see what the same scene looks like now. So, I did a comparison of the New Yorker from 1979 to 2017.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC,
Undated photo of the New Yorker, ca. 1940 (courtesy New Yorker Hotel).
For over 30 years, the New Yorker retained its original coal-fired steam boilers and generators capable of producing more than 2,200 kilowatts of direct current electric power. This, of course, ran counter to the general use of alternating current developed by Nikolai Tesla. Thus, it was somewhat ironic that Tesla chose to live in the New Yorker for the last decade of his life, from 1934 to 1943. He liked to sit in Central Park and feed the pigeons. After he passed away, MIT Professor John Trump was asked by the government to review his papers for anything significant. John Trump was the uncle of Donald Trump.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC,
The New Yorker Hotel ca. 1948.
The New Yorker went through a  number of weird detours over the years. In 1975, the Unification Church of the United States led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon bought the then-vacant building for $5.6 million. Used for various religious purposes, the hotel acquired an almost mystical reputation. The Unification Church still owns the New Yorker Hotel and reopened it as a hotel in 1999 after spending five years upgrading it. The New Yorker Hotel joined the Wyndham Hotels chain in March 2014.

The most noticeable thing about the New Yorker from street level is probably the sign. The original sign stopped working in 1967 during the hotel's troubled times, and it was not replaced (with a new LED version) until 2005. Otherwise, except for some cosmetic improvements, the

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC,
34th Street looking east toward 8th Avenue, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
Getting the right street was a little tricky for the original view because the entrances of the New Yorker looks very similar on both the 8th Avenue and 34th Street sides. The original photo was taken on 34th Street looking east toward Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, and Macy's - all of which, of course, remain there. The Empire State Building was almost invisible in the original photo, which just goes to show how misty it can get in Manhattan when it rains. Otherwise, the scene hasn't changed very much, though the low building across the street at the northeast corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue has been pretty well hidden behind signage.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC,
The New Yorker, looking up 8th Avenue from 34th Street, November 2017 (Google Street View).
If you peek around the corner to the left and look uptown on Eighth Avenue, the New Yorker looks very similar. While not as famous, the building just beyond the New Yorker on Eighth Avenue, 505 Eighth Avenue, also was built in 1930, and the one next to it, 519 Eighth Avenue, was built in 1927. They are perfectly functional buildings but don't have that distinctive art deco look, so nobody really pays them much mind as tourist attractions.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The massive piles in the center of Manhattan have had an enduring quality that retains the mystique of the 1930s while remaining very much in the here and now. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!