Tag Archives: Lower East Side

The Lower East Side lost a unique relic, a ruin of historical significance

Last night a haunting and inconceivable ruin of the Lower East Side was mysteriously destroyed in a massive fire.

The abandoned shell of the old synagogue Beth Hamedrash Hagodol has been a feature of life of Norfolk Street, stubbornly nestled next to apartment buildings, a vestige of the past clinging to the present without care or purpose.

Here are a few pictures of the front of the synagogue as it looked several months ago:

Courtesy Bowery Boys

The building has an extraordinary history, important to the histories of both local Christian and Jewish communities.

The synagogue was featured in our book:

“Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, a nineteenth-century synagogue, sits in a sad, abandoned state today, as though everyone’s afraid to go near it. Built as a Baptist church in 1850, it too was converted into a synagogue in 1885. It played an important role in Jewish American history, as it was connected to the oldest Eastern European Jewish congregation in America (Beth Hamedrash, formed in 1853), and yet today it sits eerily unused. Hopefully somebody will come to its rescue before further deterioration—or the forces of gentrification—cause it permanent harm. (60–64 Norfolk Street)”

Below: The interior of the synagogue in an image taken in 2005 (courtesy Wikimedia)

Last night the ruins were gutted in a three-alarm fire. Bowery Boogie was on the scene last night, first observing the disturbing plumes of smoke that filled the Lower East Side a little before sundown last night.

 

This morning they got a little closer to witness the horrifying aftermath.

The Lo-Down was also there to witness its destruction. Please visit their blog today for more images of the aftermath of the fire.

 

The fire seems to have some similarities to that of last year’s destruction of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, another New York City house of worship built in the 1850s with its own unique significance to the city’s history. 

The new Essex Crossing development is rising just a couple blocks north, poised to transform this area of the Lower East Side. Consider me an optimist, but I always thought the ruins of the synagogue could somehow be saved in connection with the development. Now more than ever, we need to protest as many of its treasures as possible or else risk erasing the very identity of this vital historic neighborhood.

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol is now gone.

It existed only as a crumbling ruin and now not even as that. (Friends of the Lower East Side lamented the building’s fate as “demolition by neglect.“)  Certainly it will be cleared away so the land can be used for other purposes.  Instead of even the shell of the building living on as a reminder, it will be replaced by something inevitably glass, pretty and sleek.

Pictured at top (and in the images below) — Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in 1979, in photos by Edmund Vincent Gillon.

Gillon/MCNY
Gillon/MCNY

 

NOTE: Two different spellings seem to be in use for this building — Beth Hamedrash Hagodol and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

A Culinary Tour of the Lower East Side

PODCAST A flavorful walk through the Lower East Side, exploring the neighborhood’s most famous foods.

Join Tom as he experience the tastes of another era by visiting some of the oldest culinary institutions of the Lower East Side. From McSorley’s to Katz’s, Russ & Daughters and Economy Candy — when did these shops open, who did they serve, and how, in the world are they still with us today? He explores the topic with author Sarah Lohman of the Four Pounds Flour blog.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #202: A Culinary Tour of the Lower East Side

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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A groovy bite: How has Katz’s Delicatessen managed to last so long? This picture was taken in 1975 but it could have easily have been taken today with a black-and-white filter slapped over it.

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(Photo by Edmund Vincent Gillon, 1975, courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

 

Another timeless classic — McSorley’s Old Ale House, in a photo taken by Berenice Abbott, 1937. (Ms. Abbott would have been one of the only women even allowed into McSorley’s in 1937!) How has this bar managed to stay open — and look virtually the same for over a century?

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nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-4fca-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.v

 

The Russ and Daughters interior before a renovation that widened the store.

Courtesy Russ and Daughters
Courtesy Russ and Daughters

A potato merchant in the Lower East Side. It was because of the proliferation of these peddlers that the city eventually opened the Essex Street Market in the 20th century.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Tom, recording on the road at McSorley’s Old Ale House, being a day drinker!

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For more information on guest host Sarah Lohman‘s upcoming book Four Pounds Flour, check out her website.

And for more information on the history of a few of the locations mentioned in the show, check out these other Bowery Boys: New York City History podcasts:

PODCAST: McSorley’s Old Ale House

 

http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2010/03/bowery-boys-greatest-hits-back-to-katzs.html

Where They Lived: Remembering the victims of The Triangle Factory Fire

On this day in 1911, late in the afternoon, fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the upper floors of a ten-story building near Washington Square Park. Due to odious practices by the factory’s supervisors, the doorways were blocked and the fire escapes were in poor shape.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

Hundreds of employees, mostly young immigrant women, scrambled to escape by any means necessary.

When the fire was finally extinguished, 146 workers had been killed in the blaze. Many, fearing death by the flames, leaped to the street below to the horror of onlookers who had stumbled over from the park.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is one of the most horrible tragedies in American history, both an indictment on New York sweatshop industries and the lack of any oversight about safety in high rise buildings.  Many building regulations that keep us safe today were directly put in place due to these events.

From the New York Tribune the following day:

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But on this anniversary I wanted to focus on the people who died at the Triangle Factory that day. Can we imagine something about them by looking at where they lived?

Thanks to the research of Michael Hirsch and the Kheel Center at Cornell University [found here], it’s possible to actually come up with a map of the homes of all 146 victims of the Triangle fire. It would look something like the map below. Just zoom into it to look at the individual sites and take a look at which neighborhoods and boroughs that were most affected:

NOTE: The addresses are accurate, but a few of the points are approximately placed. In a few cases, the streets no longer exist, so I placed the points in close vicinity.

To nobody’s surprise, the neighborhood most devastated by the tragedy is the Lower East Side (The east side above Houston Street — i.e. today’s East Village — didn’t take that new designation until the late 1950s.) There doesn’t seem to be a block in the neighborhood with an empty home that day one hundred years ago.

A few years before the Triangle fire, the Lower East Side had experienced an even more ghastly tragedy — the explosion of the General Slocum paddle steamer on June 15, 1904. Among the 1,021 victims of that horrific event, most lived in this neighborhood and specifically in the German area of Kleindeutschland. As the victims were mostly women and children, the disaster effectively marked the end of the German enclave here. New York wouldn’t see such a large loss of life until September 11, 2001. [There’s a Bowery Boys podcast on this subject, recorded on its 110th anniversary.]

The deaths of the 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911, did not produce the same effect to the neighborhood, but certainly the loss was gravely felt in tenements and houses throughout the city. The map shows that the disaster’s immediate impact reverberated even into the other boroughs.

Essex Street  in 1905. “You feel lonely. How would you like to live here?”

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

East vs. West
Of the 146, most all of them were born in three countries — Italy, Russia or Austria. A handful were born in the United States, presumably the children of first generation immigrants. So it’s no surprise most of them found homes in the Lower East Side, still the heart of immigrant life in the early 20th century. But I really didn’t expect it to be so decisive. Outside of a small cluster of people who lived in Greenwich Village close to the factory, there were no victims who listed addresses anywhere on Manhattan’s west side — not in Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or anywhere else.

Below: In front of 110-118 East 86th Street in July 1916

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

Yorkville and Beyond
I’m fascinated by those who lived further out, near the growing German neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for instance. A great many took streetcars and elevated trains into work from Brooklyn and the Bronx, and some might even have taken advantage of the new subway (although in 1911, its route was very limited). No surprise that none of them lived in Queens; the ethnic neighborhoods of that borough would really flourish after the 1920s.

And then there’s young Vincenza Billota, a 16 year old girl who lived out with her uncle in Hoboken, NJ — the only one of the victims to commute into the city. Her uncle came in from New Jersey that night to identify Vincenza who burned alive inside the factory. He identified her because her shoes had recently been repaired; he recognized the cobbler’s work.

From 1909, the caption reads “Tenement dwellers dropping clothes from fire escape for Italians on East side.”

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Missing Tenements

There’s something moving about finding and identifying the homes of the victims. Most of these people had no solid roots, no property they owned. Only an address, a home they most likely shared with family members and other tenants. Every year on the anniversary of the fire, the sidewalks outside these addresses are marked with chalk, the names and ages written on the ground as a yearly reminder. You can look at a photo array from the 2011 chalk excursions here.

They didn’t live in fabulous Beaux-Arts mansions or apartment buildings. Their homes were tenements, most overcrowded and poorly maintained. Thus, many of the actual buildings themselves are gone. In the cases of the victim’s homes on Monroe Street, even most of the street itself is gone, replaced with more modern housing projects.

At left, 135 Cherry Street, the home of fire victim Rose Cirrito. The photo is from 1939 (courtesy NYPL); the entire row of buildings was later demolished.

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509 East 13th Street was the home to two Italian girls, Antonietta Pasqualicchio and Annie L’Abate, and an older Italian woman Annina Ardito, who all lost their lives that day. But that building has been replaced with a modern apartment.

Family and Friends
To grasp a disaster of this magnitude — at a vantage over one century later — you have to deal with it in generalities. The victims were mostly girls, mostly immigrants, mostly uneducated. However, by singling out a particular address, the individual tragedies come into focus. And oddly, you get to place that person’s life next to what inhabits that address today. In the case of the Lower East Side, some of these places are now restaurants, bars and luxury condos.

143 Essex Street was the home of two victims — two teenage brothers Max and Sam Lehrer from Austria. Both had arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1909; another Austrian, Sigmund Freud, also arrived at Ellis Island that year.

Young Jennie Stellino had lived in New York since she was 12 years old; she died in the blaze at age 16. She walked to the factory every day from her home at 315 Bowery, one of the few with a fairly easy commute. Jennie survived the blaze but died from her burns three days later. Decades later, the building at that address became internationally renown for the tenant at its ground floor, CBGB’s.

I’m not sure there’s even a 35 Second Avenue anymore. The street is inhabited by a diner and a few bars today; the Anthology Film Archives sits across the street. But it was the home to three women who lost their lives that day — Catherine Maltese and her two daughters.

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For more information on on the Triangle Factory Fire,  you can listen to the Bowery Boys show from  April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.
Or you can play it here:

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There’s a memorial today at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, with flowers on the sidewalk for every person who perished in the fire.
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The display has an eerie parallel to one of the more disturbing images from the fire.
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This is an expanded version of an article which ran on this blog on the 100th anniversary of this Triangle Factory Fire.
Picture at top: The Lower East Side in 1913, from the rooftop of the Consolidated Gas Building (4 Irving Place), cleaned up version of public domain image courtesy Shorpy

Hey gang, let’s go down to the Recreation Pier!

The end of the 19th century saw many new ways to get people out of New York City’s over-crowded tenement districts, with trains to beach havens like Coney Island and Rockaway Beach and steamers making day-trips up the Hudson River and to spots in Long Island.

For those who didn’t have the luxury of a free afternoon,  some relief was provided in the form of new community parks such as Columbus Park (1897), Seward Park (1903) and DeWitt Clinton Park (1906).

But what if you wanted some fresh ocean breezes? The piers of the East River and the Hudson River were clotted with industry and hardly suitable for relaxation.   But the city did attempt to make the waterfront available with the introduction of so-called ‘recreation piers’.

There were a great many industrial piers redesigned in the 1890s for public use. By 1905, the New York Times reports recreation piers on the East River side (at Market Street, 3rd Street, 24th Street and 112th Street) and a couple facing the Hudson River (Christopher/Barrow Street and 50th Street).

Below: Mothers and their children on the Harlem pier, 1901

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

By noon, during the summer months, the piers were packed with mothers and their babies, groups of young women off work, and scores of children darting through the crowds.

From the Times article: “The average for the pier at the East River and 24th Street alone is 10,000 persons a day. Almost directly across town, at 50th Street and the North River, which the police call the ‘mad dog’ pier, the daily attendance is nearly as large.”

An illustration from the New York Times, June 25, 1905:

times

 

The piers provided a well-policed safe space for poor families, abundant cross breezes, and floating pools and swimming holes for those looking to escape the heat. Many of them regularly provided food vendors, musicians and even street performers, allowing city dwellers to enjoy the illusion of a short vacation getaway.

While no liquor was sold at the pier, many did their best to smuggle it past the watchful eye of the police officers.  “Flirting and open love making are prohibited,” warned the Times, “Smoking is not. A youth may puff away on his cigarettes, and a man may smoke as vile a cigar as he pleases, anywhere he pleases.”

Below: Children on the Hell’s Kitchen pier, 1903

Courtesy Harvard Libraries
Courtesy Harvard Libraries

 

The Third Street pier provided immediate relief for residents of the Lower East Side.

“That long, low building jutting out into the water changed the ending of Third Street from a sandy, ugly refuge for crap playing boys into a breathing place for thousands of dwellers in the tall tenements all around.  It is still sandy and ugly, away from the pier itelf, but there is lots of fun going on, and when you are tired of looking shoreward there is the river, with its endless excitement.” [New  York Tribune, 1901]

Below: The Third Street pier. According to the signs over the door: “Dancing on this Pier for Children from 3 to 5pm Daily Except Sunday”

Department of Records
Department of Records

 

The piers were also popular spots for young lovers at night, the open air and the river traffic providing a bit of romance and mystery. The Harlem pier at 129th Street seems particularly enchanting as it was far from the center of the city and its bright, distracting lights.

“When the moon is shining the scene along this garden spot of the Hudson is not to be equaled anywhere around New York. There is nothing of the bustle of the city up here.” [source]

The city took advantage of the piers’ popularity with tenement dwellers in order to provide medical and social services. In 1912 ‘clean milk dispensaries’ provided mothers with free milk for their babies.  Below: a doctor inspects a young baby at the East 24th Street pier.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Not to be a buzzkill, however, but most of the piers were hardly secluded from the regular activities of the busy city. The Hell’s Kitchen pier, which opened in 1900, was perfumed with smells from the trash dump two piers away, not to mention flecks of filth from the neighboring ash dump. And crossing the busy avenue just to get to the pier was somewhat of a task.

Today’s network of waterfront spaces in New York City are certainly more accommodating and convenient than these old piers, but I can’t help but wish one or two were still around, especially if they looked like this:

Courtesy the Museum of the city of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the city of New York

 

 

The Grand Tale of Orchard Street and Life on the Lower East Side

PODCAST  The Lower East Side is one of the most important neighborhoods in America with a rich history as dense as its former living quarters.  Thousands of immigrants experienced American life on these many crowded streets. In this podcast, we look at this extraordinary cultural phenomenon through the lens of one of those — Orchard Street.

Its name traces itself to a literal orchard, owned by James De Lancey, a wealthy landowner and Loyalist during the Revolutionary War.  By the 1840s the former orchard and farm was divided up into lots, and a brand new form of housing — the tenement — served new Irish and German communities who had just arrived in the United States.

A few decades later those residents were replaced by Russian and Eastern European newcomers, brought to the neighborhood due to its affordability and its established Jewish character.

Living conditions were poor and most tenement apartment doubled as workspaces.  Meanwhile, in the streets, tight conditions required a unique retail solution — the push cart, a form of independent enterprise that has given us some businesses that still thrive on Orchard Street today.

You can see this century-old life along Orchard Street today, if you know where to look. Luckily that’s what we’re here for! With some help from Adam Steinberg at the Tenement Museum, where the best place to interact with a preserved view of the old days.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #183: Orchard Street: Life In The Lower East Side

Below: “Imported Americans” — from a photo card, courtesy Library of Congress

imported

 

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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A look at the property of James De Lancey and his sophisticated plans to turn his farm into a wealthy neighborhood, probably in the spirit of St. John’s Park. The blog Manhattan Unlocked goes really deep into the story of De Lancey’s land holdings here.

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I’m not sure where this picture was taken but it illustrates a cluster of buildings constructed before the advent of tenement construction.

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Here’s a selection of photographs from the archives of the Museum of the City of New York, illustrating the clogged streets of Orchard and Hester Streets, busy with the commerce of the day.  All of these are from 1898.

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The home sweatshops, cramming an industry and several people into the parlor of a tenement building.  Here’s a necktie ‘factory’ on Division Street in 1890.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

 

And another from 1911. Child labor in full view!

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Ridley’s Department Store on the corner of Grand and Orchard Streets. They’ve really cleaned up the streets in this advertisement, haven’t they?

Courtesy the Tenement Museum
Courtesy the Tenement Museum

 

Here’s what all that mess on Orchard Street looks like in the winter! Pictured here in 1926.

Courtesy New York Daily News
Courtesy New York Daily News

 

An Allen Street tenement fire escape from 1890, obviously used for more purposes than emergencies! [source]

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

 

This photo was taken in 1908 (or somewhere around that date) showing a bit of the expansion of Delancey Street. Workers labor in the street while a Jewish boy looks on. (Department of Records)

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An overhead view of the intersection of East Broadway, Essex Street, Division Street and Canal Street, showing Seward Park and the library, both built to provide air and education to the Lower East Side.  Photo is from 1928. [source]

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An extraordinary view of Delancey Street in 1904 during the widening process for access to the Wililamsburg Bridge.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

And here’s what Delancey looked like in 1928. This is from the top of a hotel from Delancey and Chrystie. You can see the elevated train that went down Allen Street. Orchard Street is the next block in the distance.  Allen Street too was subject to expansion. And see the building labeled  Bank of the United States? Here’s a little bit more about its fascinating history.

delancey

 

Hyman Moscot stands outside of his shop at 94 Rivington Street sometime in 1934.  He began his business selling eyeglasses out of a pushcart.

Courtesy Sol Moscot
Courtesy Sol Moscot

 

A men’s tie peddler has some success selling his ties on the street corner at Orchard Street and Delancey. Courtesy New York Public Library. Click here for more historic views of this corner.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

The Lower East Side in the 1930s — less crowded in the streets with very active storefronts.

Courtesy Trace Work
Courtesy Trace Work

Jarmulowsky’s Bank at Orchard and Canal. The perch at top is no longer on the building. It was originally built there because Sender Jarmulowsky wanted to have the tallest building in the Lower East Side.

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The interior of 97 Orchard Street (today’s Tenement Museum) in 1988.

Courtesy the Tenement Museum
Courtesy the Tenement Museum

 

A big thanks to Adam Steinberg at the Tenement Museum! Visit their website for more information.

 

Joyful mourning: The Lower East Side honors a forgotten star


An extraordinary photograph of Yiddish theater stars!  Front row: Jacob Adler, Sigmund Feinman, Sigmund Mogulesko, Rudolph Marx;  Back row: Mr. Krastoshinsky and David Kessler


For a passionate sub-set of New Yorkers, Mogulesko was everything.

The Romanian-born theater star Sigmund (also written as Zigmund or Zelig) Mogulesko came to America in 1886 already a star of Europe’s Yiddish theater scene. Intrepid performers like Mogulesko helped create the Yiddish theater circuit during this decade — and, by extension, vaudeville as well, since so many of its performers would start here.

When he opened the Rumanian Opera House (later, the National Jewish Theatre) on Second Avenue and Houston Street, Mogulesko wasn’t just opening a stage. It became a vital instrument of the community and a key destination in New York’s thriving ‘little Broadway’, opera stages and vaudeville houses along Houston Street and Second Avenue uniquely catering to the immigrants of the Lower East Side.

Mogulesko became America’s most popular Yiddish theater star by the 1900s, a singer and comedian with an uncanny ability to pluck the heart strings. His debut in Coquettish Ladies required a myriad of costume changes, from old to young, male to female. A Jewish historian wrote, “A born genius he was, and his personality was as marvelous as his art.” [source]

Below:  Mogulesko in Joseph Lateiner’s The Dybbuk (performed in Odessa in 1884) playing the character “Grandmother Eve”

At the same time, he was little known in other parts of New York. (He allegedly never learned to speak English.)  The more formal elements of the “legitimate” stage sometimes looked at the successes of the Lower East Side theater scene with bemusement and a little jealousy. “These alien citizens have a theater which they thoroughly comprehend and esteem,” said the New York Times in 1914. [source]

Mogulesko, at right, with his son Julius:

This accounts for the passion held by many for the performers of Yiddish stage, the embrace of an entertainment form that was undeniably theirs in language and custom.  And this also accounts for the great outpouring of grief when one of its most acclaimed stars — like Sigmund Mogulesko — passed away.

On February 4, 1914, the great actor died in his home at Stuyvesant Street, eliciting a response from the Lower East Side that, from the outside, must have appeared quite hysterical. (Below: From the New York Sun, February 7, 1914)

His memorial service at his theater on Houston and Second Avenue caused a spectacular riot of mourning.  Over 20,000 people arrived at the theater, fighting past 50 police officers swinging their clubs.  “The crowd tore the theatre doors from their hinges and shattered their glass panels.” [source]

A funeral procession lined the streets all along Second Avenue, from the Hebrew Actors Club (at 31 East 7th Street) to the theater.  The hearse transporting the actor’s body was engulfed “in the sea of those who hummed with queer breaks in their voices bits of the songs which had endeared the author to them.” [source]  Not since the explosion of the General Slocum steamship had the Lower East Side been filled with such intense grief.

Among those who spoke at his memorial service were Jacob Adler (father of method acting coach Stella Adler) and Boris Thomashefsky, a later inspiration for the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks.  Sadness — and a certain kind of joy — permeated the service, his greatest roles and contributions to the local theater scene lauded.  It was now a vital industry of New York, one that would not have thrived as it did without him.

As Moguloesko’s coffin was taken from the church, drawn by eight black horses, and carried through the falling show, all of Delancey Street was lined with thousands of mourners, watching as the hearse, now obscured in a blizzard, headed onto the Williamsburg Bridge for its eventual destination — Washington Cemetery.

All photos (except the newspaper) from the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater Digital Archives.

Dollhouses, skully and puddles: Lower East Side children, actually having fun

Girls with a pretty amazing dollhouse at Seward Park playground.  Photo labeled August 1913

I’ll be traveling for the next few days so I’ll be posting here a bit less than normal. Next week I’ll re-post some interesting stories from the back catalog. Enjoy your weekend!

I recently discovered this first image in a collection of Lower East Side photographs, and realized how unusual it was to see pictures of children before the 1920s actually smiling and happy in photographs.  This is partly due to a certain awkwardness around cameras and the relative slow process in taking a picture back then.

Also, children were usually photographed doing things that did not make them happy.  The two best known social photographers of the era — Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis — were specifically trying to capture poor working and living conditions. Images of life’s little pleasures did not fit the narrative. Although in some of Hine’s photographs of tenement life, some happiness peeks through.

But I did find these images of kids at play, most all of them in the summer time. Take a little of their enthusiasm with you this summer! Click into the pictures for a larger view.

Children find some joy near the elevated, July 31, 1913.  The kid in me wants to jump in and join them.  The adult in me is thinking, “That water must be filthy.”

I believe the boys in the two pictures above are playing checkers*.  Top photo is labeled August 1913, the second around the same time period.

Craig on our Facebook page clarifies the images above: “I suspect that the boys in that picture aren’t playing checkers, but a distinctly NYC game called “Skully” or “Skullsy,” as some call it. At least that’s the first thing that I thought of.” Good catch!

I’m putting this in a blog post about children playing, but I do not think the boy being leaped over is having too much fun.

Children being drawn to the streets by the intoxicating sounds of the organ grinder (and monkey, although I don’t see one here).


At the Seward Park playgrounds.  The dark clothing doesn’t appear to make the scene very jovial, but everybody is all smiles.



And a bonus picture above of boys playing in Central Park, 1904.  This is a quite extraordinary picture because for half a second, I thought they were sheep.

Photos above are courtesy the Library of Congress, the Tenement Museum, and the New York Public Library

Five items from the Village Voice, 50 years ago this week

Washington Square North, looking west, 1950, photo by Walter Sanders, Life Magazine

The entire back catalog of the Village Voice, New York’s original alternative weekly, is available online through Google News.  The early issues are especially full of character, a scrappy counter-culture organ which provides an interesting window into downtown Manhattan.  Here are some highlights from an issue which came out fifty years ago this week:

1) Washington Square Park, both the physical epicenter of Greenwich Village and the gathering place for the Village’s various cultural factions, faced a possible makeover by the city in 1964.  “This plan has two objectives.  The first is to clean up the park, which is now physically run-down and neglected.  The second, in response to complaints by adjacent property-owners, is to discourage beatniks and other ‘undesirable elements’ from congregating there.” [source]

The park had been a magnet for the beatnik scene since the early 1950s.   The folk singers who would gather on Sunday afternoons had won a major victory in 1961 after a so-called “beatnik riot” convinced the city to allow musical crowds to congregate there

The park was eventually altered that year, but one major change would have been applauded by all — the traffic lane that cut under the Washington Square Arch and through the park was officially closed.

2) Sara D. Roosevelt Park in the Lower East Side, meanwhile, remained a disheveled dump, and the Voice clearly saw it as a symbol of the city’s neglect of the poor. “While the Parks Department is champing at the bit to pour $750,000 into Washington Square …. Sara Delano Roosevelt playground resembles a post-war Berlin.  The latter, at Forsyth and Chrystie Streets, has been the scene of unrelieved wreckage for almost six years.  It was torn up to make way for a subway and no one one thought to put it back together again.

The Delacourte Theater, June 1964, a performance of Hamlet (courtesy NYC Parks)

3) The New York Shakespeare Festival has a new home at the Delacourte Theater in Central Park, but writer John Wilcock, author of the Village Square column, pines for the festival’s shaggier, less respectable days.  Respectability has rendered it commonplace, according to Wilcock. Now you have to line up to grab a seat!  “This is an improvement?”

4) The Black Revolution and The White Backlash, a lecture at Town Hall, featured an interesting group of guests, including LeRio Jones (aka Amiri Baraka):

5) The jazz and folk clubs: A glorious sampling of musical icons that week — Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, George Carlin, the Highwaymen, Woody Allen, Jose Feliciano, Cannonball Adderley

The world in glasses: Theodore Roosevelt, fictional athletes, glamorous secretaries, even the Bowery Boys!

If glasses are fashionable today, you can thank President Theodore Roosevelt, whose stylish C-bridge pince-nez diminished the reputation as mere apparel for the weak.

— The Bowery Boys are featured this week on the official blog of Warby Parker, the fashionable eyewear company specialize in vintage-style prescription frames and sunglasses.  Thanks to Dixie Roberts for a terrific interview!  You can check out the story here, and a couple pictures of us striking a pose in Hudson Square:  [Warby Parker]

— Warby Parker get their name from two early characters created by Jack Kerouac — fictional baseball players named Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker.

According to the New York Times, Kerouac “obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players …who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).  More on Kerouac’s curious obsession here: [New York Times]

— No surprise here, but if you were buying eyeglasses a century ago, you’d head over to the optical department of New York’s leading department stores. Fifty cent spectacles at Bloomingdale’s!

— As of 1915, in the Lower East Side, you could stop by this rather flamboyant looking store on Rivington Street — Moscot Optical.  They’re still in business in 2013, but they’ve moved to Delancey Street. (Photo courtesy Moscot)

— And finally, is there nothing more glamorous than a pair of hearing aid glasses? This is what Life Magazine tried to convince its readers of in 1955.  After all, look at her! (Photo by Peter Stackpole)

This innovation, combining aids for sight and sound, was created by Otarion Inc, based in Dobbs Ferry, NY.

According to a June 1955 edition of Life Magazine: “Called the ‘Listener’, it has 187 parts compressed into the side pieces with only a short, transparent ear tube to betray what it really is.  Since most people who are hard of hearing are middle aged, they wear glasses anyway and can simply have lenses put into the frames.”

An ad for Otarion hearing-aid glasses from 1956 at left.   At right: A later style from Zenith, best known for their television sets.


The Lower East Side went back in time this week

Was this photograph taken yesterday on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s new mini-series The Knick, or was it taken back in the 1910s?  The answer is at the bottom of this blog post!

This week, a little stage magic is manifesting in the Lower East Side. The Broome Street of 2013 has been turned briefly into the Broome Street of 1910!  Steven Soderbergh has been shooting his new mini-series The Knick in New York this week, a tale of old Knickerbocker Hospital set over a century ago.  This required the boutique-and-lounge strewn Broome be reverted to its days of immigrants, wagons and pushcarts.

Tom wandered through the set last night and took these photographs:

Hay, it’s one of the Bowery Boys!

Interestingly,. there’s an actual Stag’s Head up on 51st Street!

Gothamist also has a fine set of pictures from the set, featuring some extras in costumes.  The Soderbergh mini-series will debut on Cinemax in 2014. 
Compare these with some actual pictures and illustrations of the Lower East Side in the early 1910s:
Mulberry Street clam seller (circa 1900-1905), cleaned-up image courtesy Shorpy.
Street scene from 1915,” actual street unknown (NYPL)
A Lower East Side hot-potato merchant (NYPL):
Essex and Hester Street, photo-mechanical postcard, date unknown (NYPL)
Illustration from Ladies Home Journal, Sept 1910, of a typical LES ‘street scene’ (NYPL):
As for this photograph — this is not a picture of a hipster film extra from 2013, but a man taking a brief nap in a park in the Lower East Side, photo dated 1912. ( LOC)