My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before in Reflections on a New York City Christmas and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
For me, one of the greatest aspects about photography and what attracted me to the medium as a 12-year-old, is the medium’s power to momentarily stop time. Even back then, I had a very strong sense of mortality and the desire as an artist to capture visual memories before they disappeared. I realized early on how ephemeral life is and took quite a few photos in my own hometown – Chicago. Like NYC, too many ma and pa shops have been shuttered, forced out of business by behemoths like Walmart. The thought of Kmart in the East Village is so gross that I actually had to go in when I was visiting in October of this year. It is odd to see this, because in Chicago, Kmart is barely surviving – there is just one store in the general vicinity of where I live, while there used to be many.
The primary purpose of this blog is a Then and Now photo essay. Many bloggers have done this type of thing and I always enjoy them. So before I went to NYC in October, I did a lot of research, determined to find some of my favorite photographers’ vintage photos of NYC and photograph these same sites on my visit. I have always loved Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Soho, so I primarily concentrated on those areas. The majority of the vintage photos were taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for the Federal Art Project. Many of these are available digitally in the Changing New York archive of the New York Public Library.
144-146 Bleecker Street
The building at 144-146 Bleecker Street was originally built in 1832 as two separate row houses. In 1883-1884, Placido Mori converted the 144 row house into a restaurant. The restaurateur befriended a young architect named Raymond Hood and let him live in an upstairs apartment and eat for free at the restaurant, in return for undertaking an architectural project. In 1920, Hood designed a new facade for the building that encompassed 144 and 146 Bleecker. The redesign included a row of Doric columns across the first floor, faux Federal lintels over the windows, and a setback penthouse studio. Mori Restaurant closed in 1937, having survived the Prohibition era and the worst years of the Great Depression. Berenice Abbott photographed the restaurant on November 21, 1935 as part of the Federal Art Project.
Oddly, I discovered that an independent art/stationery store that I frequent occupies 144 Bleecker now. New University Pen and Stationery is an independent store crammed full of all sorts of goodies – the type of place that harkens back to a different time and place. Unfortunately, right next door is yet another Duane Reade!
259 Bleecker Street
When I photographed A. Zito and Sons Bakery in 1978, I don’t think I knew that Berenice Abbott had photographed this bakery, although I was already familiar with and admired her work. Sadly, A. Zito and Sons Bakery closed in May 2004 after being in business for 80 years. Today The Mobile Spa is at 259 Bleecker Street, but hey, at least that is a clever name for a cell phone repair shop.
329 Bleecker Street
A small 2-story building stands at the NE corner of Bleecker and Christopher Streets, one of the oldest in Greenwich Village. It was constructed in 1802 during Thomas Jefferson’s administration and photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1935. This blog has a very interesting tale about this historical corner. I had difficulties photographing the site in October due to scaffolding. The small building houses four apartments, but there is a fairly large chain named Accessorize on the corner – they have 1,000 stores across the world. Case in point about large chain stores taking over NYC!
413 Bleecker Street
Berenice Abbott photographed the August Pingpank Barber Shop in 1938. When Abbott shot this wonderful barber shop, August Pingpank was already 87 and reported to be one of the oldest barbers in NYC. He was born in 1851 and died in 1941, just three years after the photograph was taken. Once again, a large chain is now housed in this historic building – Nars Cosmetics opened its first NYC flagship store at this address in 2011.
If it looks to passerby that this building is a medley of styles, it is just that. Originally built in 1830 as a mansion, an addition in 1871 extended the building by two stories. The house was built by the wealthy manufacturer Samuel Whittemore, who sold the house in 1851. By 1858, it was advertised as a first-class boarding house. The building has a connection to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Actor Samuel K. Chester lived there from the beginning of 1865, and was paid a visit by John Wilkes Booth, who tried to enlist him in a plot to overthrow the government and kidnap President Lincoln. Of course the scoundrel assassinated Lincoln in April, and a few months later, the building was converted to the Lincoln Home for destitute soldiers and sailors. Photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1935, I cannot help but notice the sign that says Boykin’s School of Art in the window, which apparently specialized in teaching aspiring Black artists. The Whittemore House Salon is on the garden level now – nice that they named it after the original building.
14-16 Gay Street
If you look hard enough, there are still charming little streets in the Village that have not been destroyed by progress. That is not to say that time has not marched forward – you would need to be a millionaire to own property on some of these lovely streets. Such is the case with Gay Street, a narrow lane that was laid out in the early years of the 19th Century. The first published mention of Gay Street was in April 1837. Gay Street was widened in 1833, and the 1820s-period houses on the west side of the street were razed, replaced with working-class Greek Revival homes with stables in the back. Ohio-born author Ruth McKenney and her sister Eileen moved to NYC and shared the moldy, one-room basement apartment at 14 Gay Street for $45 a month. Although they lived there for only six months, it inspired Ruth to write a series of stories published in The New Yorker, which later was produced as the play and a film called My Sister Eileen. Sadly, Eileen and her famous husband Nathaniel West were killed in an automobile accident on December 22, 1940, just days before the play’s Broadway debut. The basement apartment was $345 a month in 1975 and about $1,200 in 2003. Apt. 9, a 1-bedroom at 16 Gay Street is worth $1.7 million, or comparable to $6,500 a month rent according to Zillow. The biggest differences between Berenice Abbott’s 1935 photo and mine is that the window shutters and little commercial sign have been removed.
Patchin Place is a delightful little enclave off West 10th Street and Sixth Avenue that harkens back to 1848-1849, when Samuel Milligan decided to build 10 townhouses facing each other across an alley. Patchin Place #4 was built as a standalone building, with the rest erected as attached row houses. Isobel Milligan married her father’s surveyor Aaron Patchin, and his name was affixed to the alley, although Patchin does not show up in records until around 1885. Just around the corner, a smaller cul-de-sac off Sixth Avenue is named Milligan Place. When Patchin Place was completed in 1849, West 10th Street was still called Amos Street, named after Charles Christopher Amos, who also had Christopher Street named after him. It has been quite a literary enclave – E.E. Cummings lived at #4 where there is a plaque, and Theodore Dreiser also lived here, but there is no plaque designating his exact address. When you stroll through here, it is easy to imagine NYC in the mid-19th century, a world away from the commercialism of Sixth Avenue.
150 West 4th Street
When I wrote a blog on Jessie Tarbox Beals, I discovered that the charming site she photographed in 1908-1916 is now the Washington Square Diner, a place I have walked by numerous times. Down the Rabbit Hole was a tea room for the Bohemian crowd that hung out in Greenwich Village back in her day. I ate at this diner with my daughter in December 2012, the last night of my stay, the first time I visited her after she moved to NYC. The bison burger was very tasty and reasonably priced for NYC – I saved half of it to eat on my flight home. There were two of NYC’s finest (a male and female cop) sitting across from our booth – it was amusing listening to their conversation.
2-6 Minetta Lane
This charmingly crooked street and lane enchanted me way back in the late 1970s when I visited my older sister, who lived in various apartments in the Village and Soho. I had no idea about its sordid past until I read this enlightening blog. Halfway between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street, Minetta Lane intersects with Minetta Street. I was perplexed when looking for 2, 4 or 6 Minetta Street, the address noted in the 1935 photo taken by Berenice Abbott. Unable to locate this exact address on the street, I thought it might have been taken on the lane. I have photos of both – it is possible that the building photographed in 1935 was replaced by the large apartment building on the corner of Minetta Street and Sixth Avenue. In any case, one would never guess from this relatively idyllic enclave that back in the 1800s to mid-20th century, Minetta Lane was home to prostitutes, gay bars, and “black and tan” saloons that catered to blacks and Irish gangsters.
504-506 Broome Street
It is clear from the October 9, 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott that there is an elevated line just east of this building. This building is very close to what is now West Broadway. The elevated must be the Sixth Avenue Elevated, which was torn down just three years after this photograph was taken. The closest address I could find when photographing this site was 508 Broome – I am guessing something was razed in addition to the elevated line.
512-514 Broome Street
Likely taken by Berenice Abbott on October 9, 1935, a three-story residential building stands with a large industrial building rising behind it. The words Grocers Warehouse Corporation are very clear on the industrial building. In a 1920 Port of New York Annual, Grocers Warehouse Corporation is listed at 34 Greene Street, which is a few blocks southeast. The day I photographed this site, which was incidentally exactly 80 years later to the day, there were a lot of cars and a truck blocking the building from across the street, so I could not get a clear shot. A Google capture from the prior year shows buildings that resemble those in the 1935 photograph, although renovations have clearly taken place. I was disgusted by the Subway restaurant chain a few doors down – both literally (hate the smell) and psychologically.
Lewis W. Hine shot this row of tenements spanning 260 to 268 Elizabeth Street in March 1912. While this street has long been gentrified, it appears to me like it is suffering a little from high rents – some businesses were closed. Of course this is the story of NYC – businesses come and go all the time. The metalwork looks near identical to the way it looked in 1912, although I am certain it has been renovated.
The photo of the apothecary Wm. M. Olliffe Inc. was taken by Dom Morgan on May 18, 1947. As seen on the building signage, this business was established in 1805. There was some controversy in the 1930s, when this druggist claimed to be the oldest in the U.S., according to a fascinating 1934 historical document I found. “Olliffe’s Drug Store was established by Dr. Daniel D. Walters at 210 Chatham Street (now Park Row), at the corner of Doyers. In 1828, the business moved to 6 Bowery. A rather unattractive bank stands at this site now.
The photo of the Blossom Restaurant is one of my favorites by Berenice Abbott. You could get a really cheap meal in 1935, followed by a really cheap shave next door or vice versa. I don’t know how long this has been considered part of Chinatown, but nearly all of the stores here now look to be Chinese. The area looks a little sleazy compared to some other streets in Chinatown.
I have always been drawn to Chinatown, but it wasn’t nearly this big when I visited NYC during my RISD years (1976-1980). My favorite street in all of Chinatown is Doyers – I always find myself here and have photographed it on multiple visits. The 1932 photograph by Charles Von Urban from the Museum of the City of New York is labeled 608 Doyers Street. That address is not even close to the full range of numbers on the street currently – either it is an error or the numbering system has drastically changed. The 1945 photograph was taken by Albert Abbott – who was this mysterious photographer? In any case, this street was known as “the Bloody Angle” due to numerous shootings among the Tong Gangs of Chinatown, up until the 1930s. In fact, a 1994 New York Times article reported that the tiny Bloody Angle witnessed more deaths than any other intersection in the entire country.
The history of the Bowery as a sordid street goes back to the Civil War era, when low-brow concert halls, brothels, pawn shops, and flophouses took the place of mansions and shops. In the 1940s-1990s, the Bowery was known as skid row – a place very few people ventured to, with the notable exception being CBGB, the famed club that launched the careers of Blondie and Patti Smith, among others. It has been gentrified to a large degree, but there are still areas that look in dire need of being rehabbed.
The photograph of the Tri-Boro Barber School was taken by Berenice Abbott on October 24, 1935. There is no mention of this business except in context with this photograph. Fast forward – an uber hip club named Kos (closed in 2004) once occupied this now vacant property. It was owned by Lenny Kravitz and Denzel Washington and there was a plush room called the “Kitty Box,” where mega VIPs like Bruce Willis, P. Diddy, Steven Tyler, Mary Kate Olsen, and other celebs mingled. An upscale boutique named Dagny & Barstow renovated the space as reported in this blog, but mysteriously closed down in early 2014 after an apparently successful, but oddly short stint. The space currently looks rather unappealing – the “6” is missing and it is kind of a throwback to a shabby Bowery, circa 1970s.
The photograph of this jam-packed hardware store was taken by Berenice Abbott on January 26, 1938. There are still a handful of stores on the Bowery that display cheap bins of merchandise on the sidewalk outside the storefronts, although the number of these has dwindled. A restaurant called Saxon & Parole occupies the space now. It looks to be a hip equestrian-themed restaurant with pretty good reviews. The historical building once housed a hotel, but has been completed renovated with residential prices that belie the previous skid-row incarnation of the Bowery.
100 Third Avenue
I cannot find any documentation that links the Lyric Theater at 100 Third Avenue to the famous Lyric Theater on West 42nd-43rd Street that existed during the same time. In fact, that theater was renovated and now is a top state-of-the-art Broadway musical house. Berenice Abbott took a wonderful photograph of the other Lyric Theater in the East Village on April 24, 1936. According to Cinema Treasures, the Jewel Theatre occupied this space during the 1960s, showing gay male films. Currently occupying the commercial space is one of those ubiquitous sports bars called Nevada Smiths that has the tag line, “Where football is religion.” Apparently they have been under threat of closing for several months due to bad debts.
7 West 20th Street
Working for the Byron Company, Arthur Vitols took the photograph of this cafeteria in 1935. It is intriguing that 80 years later, there is still a restaurant at this site – Aleo Restaurant and Bar. According to the website, Aleo assimilate the cultures of Italy and the sumptuous flavors of the beautiful Mediterranean. This is a 5-story building that was completed in 1920 according to Emporis. Close to the Flatiron Building, this area was also known as the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, a prime shopping district at the end of the 19th century.
149 Eighth Avenue
I cannot find anything about Rothman’s Pawn Shop, except for a model kit that is available online (really odd) and an incidental crime report from 1936. Rothman’s looked like a spectacular pawn shop, at least from the outside, as seen in the 1938 photograph by Berenice Abbott. Ugh – Chipotle is at this site now – another chain restaurant with a bad rap to boot with the recent cases of E-coli.
C’est la vie – nothing ever stays the same – and even memories fade with time.
Photo Sources: Museum of the City of New York, NYPL Digital Collections