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Shop Life at The Tenement Museum

For the last twenty years, the Tenement Museum has been telling the stories of the residents of 97 Orchard Street. Now, in a new exhibit, “Shop Life,” it introduces us to four of the retail businesses which inhabited the building’s ground floor.

Radical Memories of Knickerbocker Village

group-2012Laura KupersteinReunion of former and current KV residents, 2012.

In the first part of a two-part story, Mary Reinholz speaks with some former residents of Knickerbocker Village.

Although hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, Knickerbocker Village still looks like an urban fortress, with its aging collection of 13-story brick buildings spanning one full city block. As lower middle income residents once again consider the option of going co-op, it’s worth noting that this sprawling complex, a precursor to the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, was once a hot bed of tenant activism and radical politics during the Depression era on the Lower East Side.

This was a time when the gangs of New York held sway in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods, and mobsters controlled the docks on the East River nearby. An infamous “lung block” on which the complex sits between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges got its name because so many tenants there had died from tuberculosis in squalid living conditions.

“It used to be all alleys and tenements, the worst kind of tenements you can imagine,” said Hal Kanter, 83, a retired restaurateur and former owner of Manhattan’s Broadway Joe steak house who lived at Knickerbocker Village from 1935, a year after it opened, to 1948. “Knickerbocker Village cleaned all that up. I was a tot when it opened and it seemed so safe. It was like a prison–with walls and gates so high you couldn’t scale them.”

DSC00232Photo courtesy David AlmanlRosenberg author Dave Alman

Author David Alman, 93, who grew up in a tenement on Rivington St., moved into KV in 1941, noting “It dwarfed anything we had ever seen before.” It struck him, he said, as a kind of working-class paradise. Some seven decades later, in 2009, he published a book with his late wife Emily Arrnow on an episode in KV history. It was called, “Exoneration: the Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell.“

The Rosenbergs, who were convicted for conspiring to pass atom bomb secrets to Russia, and executed at Sing Sing prison in 1953, remain Knickerbocker Village’s most notorious former tenants. Both were communists who had been living with their two young sons in a modestly priced apartment. Read more…

Moves to Protect the East Village

Community SynagogueGrace MaaloufThe Community Synagogue on East 6th Street is one of the significant buildings to be included in the proposed new historic district.

As gentrification continues to alter the East Village landscape, attempts are afoot to have sections of the neighborhood designated a historic district, helping to preserve their architecture and character.

Following extensive surveying and examining the neighborhood, The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission recommended at an April 26 meeting that two areas of the East Village be designated historic districts. This is a preliminary step in the process, with a follow-up public presentation and hearing before the Landmarks Subcommittee of Community Board 3 on Thursday this week.

The two areas slated to constitute this historic district include approximately 300 buildings. One section is the north side of East 10th Street between Avenues A and B, opposite the northern boundary of Tompkins Square Park. This block includes a mix of stately 19th century brownstones along with tenement buildings.

The second area is from East 2nd Street to East 7th Streets, between the Bowery and Avenue A. Read more…

Fear and Loathing on East 4th Street

Jesse Fish

The East Village has historically been visited by and home to a diverse and eclectic variety of artists, musicians and writers. More than 50 years ago it was the domicile of the late drug-ingesting, drink-swilling gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. In the winter of 1959 the 22-year-old Thompson listed his address as 69 East Fourth Street, a residence he shared with a friend.

According to Thompson’s letters in “The Proud Highway” (1997), the native Kentuckian befriended a number of Louisville expatriates while living in downtown Manhattan. Most of “them move in different circles,” he wrote to the editor of a hometown paper, ”and all of them have their own reasons for leaving.” Thompson wrote explained that his story would be “a single shot (Louisville Expatriates in New York) or a series of contrasting interviews.” New York City was not easy for The Good Doctor at this time and he had moved in and out of the area on occasion. While living in Greenwich Village a year before, Thompson wrote an unsolicited letter to a newspaper in British Columbia stating that he would be willing to “work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.”

The erratic and spontaneous Thompson, who once stated that he had “no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me,” bounced through a variety of neighborhoods and writing jobs in Manhattan during the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s. During this time he also briefly studied short story writing at Columbia University and wrote a novel, “Prince Jellyfish,” which remains unpublished. The work has been described as “an autobiographical novel about a boy from Louisville, going to the big city and struggling against the dunces to make his way.”

Despite his initial grappling as a young writer in the city, Thompson always had time and money for a few brews and one of his favorite haunts, McSorley’s Old Ale House, is within stumbling distance of the East Fourth Street address. Additionally, the Hell’s Angels New York headquarters are located near this residence on 77 East Third Street. This is interesting to note because Thompson’s first published book, “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” (1966), was a non-fiction publication that Thompson penned while riding with the notorious biking gang in the early 1960’s. It is not known if Thompson ever visited their East Village hangout before the 1966 publication of the book, but the thought of a boozed up and downtrodden young Thompson asleep on the group’s bench outside does not seem incredibly far-fetched.

The Bowery’s Bid for Posterity

Bowery 1800'sCourtesy of Tim SchreierA photograph of The Bowery in the 19th century showing the elevated railroads.

Kerri Culhane’s lightning-speed, three-minute presentation at the Community Board 2 meeting held at Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Monday provided little indication of the vast research she has gathered in seeking to create a Bowery National Historic District which would span the approximately mile-long avenue, which runs from Chatham Square to Cooper Square .

Currently, individual buildings on the Bowery including The Bowery Savings Bank and Bouwerie Lane Theater have been designated National Historic Landmarks, along with limited portions of the Bowery being included in already designated National Historic Districts. The effort is being co-sponsored by the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors and The Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

Former NYC Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Anthony Tung has described the “disjointed beauty” of the assemblage of buildings which line the former Native American foot path and later road leading to Peter Stuyvesant’s farm or “bouwerie” from which the street took its name.
Read more…

Tribes of New York

Native American TrailAn early photo of a Native American trail from the Inwood section of Manhattan Island. Photo by W.L. Calver, originally published 1922.

Plans to pedestrianize Astor Place and expand Cooper Square Park, which were presented to Community Boards 2 and 3 on January 6th, are moving toward approval from the city’s Public Design Commission. A few wrinkles must be smoothed out, however, before the blueprints can be handed over to a contractor. Perhaps the most interesting community petition made thus far is that an old Native American trail, which ran through the area, be memorialized in the new design.

The Local thought that in light of the request, this might be the perfect time to look at the oft-forgotten historical presence of Native Americans in the East Village.

Once upon a time, Manhattan was a remote offshoot of North America with dense forests full of wildlife, open fields overgrown with rich grass, and bountiful harbors teeming with oysters, lobsters, and fish.

According to Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, tribes of Lenape Indians set up camp on this bountiful land, which they called Lenapehoking or, “where the Lenapes dwell,” more than sixty-five hundred years ago. They moved about frequently in groups of roughly 200 people at a time, hunting deer and wild turkeys, fishing, and foraging for nuts and berries.

Some fifty-five hundred years later, they had established more static communities thanks, in large part, to agricultural advancements. When Europeans arrived in 1524, approximately 15,000 Lenape Indians of various tribes lived in what is now New York City.
Read more…

Local Legends | 35 Cooper Square

35COOPER-00_Banner-Slide01Clockwise from top left: (1.) Bowery Elevated Train, circa 1896; (2.) Bowery near Bleecker, circa 1915; (3.) 35 Cooper Square in February this year; (4.) Boys on the Bowery selling chewing gum, 1910; (5.) A Union enlistee of the New York 86th Regiment and his betrothed, circa 1861. All images courtesy Library of Congress, except (3.) lower right, photo illustration by Tim Milk

Local historian Tim Milk recalls dark episodes which never quite extinguished the charm of 35 Cooper Square.

They could hardly believe the fellow, wanting to go back to his regiment. Especially considering what he had seen: the rout of the Union at the bloody battle of Bull Run. There, the heroic Lieutenant John S. Whyte, who had refused to leave his wounded commander, fell into Confederate hands. But in a recent prisoner of war exchange, he was returned home to his kith and kin in New York.

But he did not wish to retire with honors. Indeed, he was keen to “return to the fight,” he said.

And so his pals shook their heads and dragged him down to the Marshall House, a tavern at 391 Bowery, an address we know today as 35 Cooper Square. There they presented him with a sword and a sash in an affair both touching and festive. After a grand hurrah, the champagne flowed like a river long into that night of March the 21st, 1862.

This I found in the archives of the New York Times, in a curious walk down that ancient lane, the Bowery. From out of each door came someone with a tale to tell which, except for these old papers, and poor relics like 35 Cooper Square, would otherwise have vanished, lost in time.

“Time,” Stephen Hawking once said, “…whatever that is.” Even he doesn’t pretend to know. As the so-called future, it is but a mere concept. As the past, it holds everything that has ever happened, and leads all the way back to eternity. There it washes up on distant shores for no apparent reason, except perhaps for our return. Read more…

The Significance of 35 Cooper Square

35COOPER-07.03.08-IMG_2762a-det2Tim Milk

Since 2002, architectural historian Kerri Culhane has worked with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council to document the history of the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. In December 2010 she and Two Bridges received the New York State Preservation Award for Outstanding National Register nomination for the Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District. She is currently writing the forthcoming Bowery Historic District nomination, sponsored by Two Bridges Neighborhood Council and Bowery Alliance of Neighbors.

Formerly 391 Bowery, 35 Cooper Square was built between 1825-27, as one of four houses developed on the land of Nicholas William Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant was a direct descendant of the Dutch West India Company’s last director-general, Petrus Stuyvesant.

The development pattern north of Houston (then called North Street) remained very rural until the early 19th century. In 1811, a plan to establish a street grid north of the haphazard jumble of streets below Houston was mapped by surveyor John Randel. Third Avenue, branching off of the Bowery, was not built until the early 1820s. Stuyvesant’s four buildings were among the first ever built on this new road — the Bowery spur of Third Avenue. The 35 Cooper Square site is, therefore, an artifact of the most significant urbanization effort of New York, which left us with the grid system that now blankets the island.

The modest brick house at 35 Cooper Square would have been typical of its period, two-and-one-half stories, with a generous attic under a “peaked” roof lit by a pair of dormers. The defining architectural characteristics of the urban Federal era rowhouse include the form, most commonly two-and-one-half to three-and-one-half stories; gambrel or side-gable roofs featuring single or paired dormers; Flemish bond brickwork; and simple stone lintels. My recent research has identified at least 26 buildings dating to the Federal period still standing on the Bowery, of which only 12, thanks to minimal alterations, still clearly represent the era. Read more…

Up at the Old Nuyorican

Upstairs at the NuyoricanKim Davis

Climbing the rickety, makeshift stairway of the century old former tenement building on East Third Street that houses the Nuyorican Poets Café there was little to foretell the treasure trove Kim Davis and I would encounter. Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican, explained that few know of the existence of the archives we were set to explore, and even fewer got to view this lofty realm as the Café has no certificate of occupancy for the top three floors of the building, which are not open to the public and are used strictly for storage. Daniel described how poet Miguel Algarín, and the Café’s other founders, had acquired the building from LaMama Theater creator Ellen Stewart in 1980 and established a venue where Lower East Side poets, playwrights and musicians could present their work.

After Daniel unlocked the padlock fastened to a small piece of plywood serving as a makeshift door leading to the third floor, we crouched to squeeze through the narrow entryway. As we ascended the stairs, the exposed brick walls were crowded with posters, paintings and costume designs from former productions held in the performance space occupying the first two floors of the building. Reaching the top of the stairs we entered a dimly lit, open loft space crammed in virtual disarray with a treasure trove of costumes crowded on racks, stage props, banners, posters and a vast collection of bric-a-brac accumulated over more than thirty years.

Costume designers have borrowed some of these period outfits for use in recent films. A large sign for one of the Nuyorican’s landmark productions, “Julius Caesar Set in Africa,” hung on the wall. As we wandered about the floor, it was difficult to appreciate everything. Exposed brick walls, fireplace mantles, thick wooden rafter beams were the only remains of the former railroad apartments that had existed in the building’s former tenement incarnation.

Dan regaled us with the history of numerous Nuyorican productions which had their sets and costumes created in this space. Tony Award winning playwright and actor Sarah Jones began her career with her first solo show, “Surface Transit” at the Nuyorican in 1998. She recently returned for a two week engagement after a Broadway run of “Bridge and Tunnel.” A sewing machine, paint cans, bolts of fabric, containers holding glitter, jars full of buttons, rolls of yarn and thread were evidence of the many hours that artists and writers like Sarah Jones “Bridge and Tunnel” and Miguel Piñero (“Short Eyes”) labored in the space. Read more…

Looking Back | 20 St. Marks Place

This post was reported by NYU Journalism’s Rachel Slaff, Todd Olmstead and Nasry Esmat. It was written by Ms. Slaff.

20 St. Marks 2Illustration by Nasry Esmat An image of 20 St. Marks Place, past and present.

Yoga studios. Frozen yogurt stores. Tattoo parlors. Knock-off Ray-Bans, colorful socks and bubble tea – all for sale. Tourists swarm by pizza shops; college students flick cigarette butts onto the street. It’s loud, it’s crowded. It’s every possible cliche of the East Village, packed onto a block. This is St. Marks Place.

But fast food and neon lights haven’t always epitomized this street. Building No. 20, between Second and Third Avenues, has seen St. Marks Place change drastically over more than two centuries. This rowhouse traces its lineage back to wealthy descendants of the Stuyvesants, yet it also watched Warhol cavort through the Village. It witnessed the aftershock of a horrific peacetime maritime disaster. It has been home to soldiers and storeowners and has housed a dress shop, a carpentry workshop and a record store. No. 20 is a historical hold-out, an architectural remnant of times long forgotten in the East Village.

The metal plaque from the New York Community Trust that is affixed to No. 20’s facade notes that the address has landmark status for its late-Federal style architecture. But the ornament is not large or flashy enough to draw much attention – it is as if the building wants to be left alone. The plain signs of the businesses on its first two floors are a muted counterpoint to the sensory overload that the rest of the block exudes. The building’s iron railing is decrepit, its brick facade unremarkable, and yet, the limestone molding on the door hints at a meaningful history.
Read more…

Local Legends | ‘Monk’ Eastman

Monk EastmanCourtesy of Rose Keefe. ‘Monk’ Eastman.

Eleven days ago, the arrest of nearly 125 mobsters reacquainted many to the fact that the mob still has life outside of the occasional H.B.O. series.  Federal officials labeled the bust “the largest mob roundup in F.B.I. history,” and once the media got ahold of the accused’s food-centric monikers – here’s lookin’ at you “Junior Lollipops” – curiosity ensued.

Americans have a longstanding fascination with the mob. As Eric Ferrara, director of the Lower East Side History Project puts it, “The outlaw is timeless. They have a certain brazen quality that people tend to admire.”

In light of recent gangster coverage, The Local thought it might be the perfect time to take a look at one of the East Village’s own “brazen” outlaws – one with whom you may not even be acquainted.

Before Al Capone, before Luciano, and definitely before “Tony Bagels,” the gangster to be feared and admired was “Monk” Eastman.

Born Edward Eastman in 1873, the mobster known as “Monk” was a frightening figure to behold. As the historian Herbert Asbury described, “He began life with a bullet-shaped head.” He was broken-nosed, bull-necked, and had a face scarred from smallpox and a lifetime of brawling.

In the 1890’s, the Lower East Side was a warren of disease-friendly tenements for the immigrated poor and, by all accounts, its streets were a breeding ground for pickpockets, thugs, and slummers of all stripes.

It was on these same mean streets that Mr. Eastman carved out a reputation as a neighborhood tough and eventually recruited his own gang: the Eastmans.
Read more…