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!