A Nostalgic Trip Down Canal Street, NYC

Pearl Paint & Canal Jean, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die


My last blog discussed my love of “old-school” art supply and camera shops and my dismay about their dwindling numbers. After I posted that article, I started scanning black and white negatives I shot from 1976-1979 with my handy Canon FTb, mainly during magical sojourns to NYC from my ivory-tower RISD existence in Providence. Lo and behold – I discovered this panoramic view of Canal Street with Pearl Paint at the center. The street was a hop, skip, and jump away after my older sis moved to a garden apartment on Grand Street just east of Sixth Avenue. She was kind enough to put me up on all those NYC visits, even after she got married in 1978.

Finding this photo and others brought back a flood of memories about how much I loved Canal Street back then and the many changes in the last few decades that have robbed this once quirky street of its unique character. Escalating rents have been killing ma and pa businesses in NYC for many years. Certainly, today’s gentrification is preferred to the blighted, empty storefronts that plagued the street for so long, but like other neighborhoods in NYC, Canal may be turning into any other upscale street in any other major city USA.

A Short History of Canal Street

Discovering my old photos of Canal Street prompted research on the intriguing history of the street that began as a solution for the growing problem of industrial run-off. Before Five Points slum existed, a small area of Manhattan called Collect Pond with its underground spring-fed lake, provided a major source of fresh water until the late 1700s. It became too polluted due to tanneries and breweries belching out vast amounts of liquid refuse into it. The water had nowhere to go because the surrounding area was low-lying, so a canal was built to drain Collect Pond more effectively. By 1813-1815, the pond was completely drained. The canal existed until 1820-1821, at which time it was covered up and became Canal Street. In 1838, the recovered land became home to the notorious prison known as The Tombs. The White House at 156 Canal was infamous because that’s where John F. Schrank lived prior to his unsuccessful assassination attempt on former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on October 14, 1912 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to 47th Street becoming the famous diamond district, Canal was home to many jewelry businesses, in particular on the corner of Canal and the Bowery – and there still are a few stores in Chinatown. 


Broadway Looking North from Canal Street, 1916

Personal Memories

I remember many businesses in Chinatown that were east of Mulberry, back in the day. My most vivid memories, in addition to Pearl Paint, involve the eclectic array of cool stores between Sixth Avenue and Lafayette. At one time, many stores sold job lot goods, plexiglass sheets and tubing, and hundreds of other useful things for artists and tinkerers. In 1981, plastic stores on Canal Street included Canal Plastic Center (# 345), Industrial Plastics (#309), and Art Plastics (#359). As far as I know, only Canal Plastic between Wooster and Greene Streets still exists today as a brick and mortar store – and it actually might be the one at which I purchased the blue plexiglass for this marble torso during my senior year at RISD. Industrial Plastics isn’t out of business – they’re strictly an online store.


Marble Torso by Betsy van Die, 1980

Industrial Plastic, 2005, Copyright Betsy van Die

Vintage Goods

I frequented a small antique mall on Canal Street – around 1978, I showed one of the dealers my small alabaster sculptures and she offered to sell them on consignment. When another dealer appeared at her booth and suggested I take them to the much larger Showplace Antique + Design Center on 25th Street, she had a fit and told me to leave. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the Canal Street antique mall.

Canal Street has always been home to hawkers, as evidenced by this circa 1910 photo of children by Lewis Hine. I have fond memories of many street dealers selling vintage goods, including a specific incident forever ingrained in my memory.


Tending Stand, Canal Street by Lewis Hine, 1910


After I took the below photo, the group of boys insisted they take my photo with my Canon FTb. Even back then, I wasn’t naive enough to fall for this con so I refused and waited until they left the immediate vicinity. This particular dealer was selling Mexican fire agate sterling silver rings for $10 each. I thought about going back to buy one, but was short on cash, so decided against it.


Jewelry Vendor, Canal Street, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die


I often browsed at Canal Jean & Co, right next door to Pearl Paint. They offered a huge selection of vintage surplus clothing. In addition to used jeans, you could find men’s suit vests, cardigan sweaters, leather coats and jackets, underwear, neckties, scarves, military knapsacks, etc. The only item I ever bought there was a salmon-colored vintage sweater I regretted buying almost immediately due to the pilling that made it look too grungy. Canal Jean made a cameo appearance in the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre! After they moved to 504 Broadway, the store seemed more like an overpriced vintage imposter than authentic vintage. Founder Ira Russack leased the Canal Jean building at 504 Broadway to Bloomingdale’s in 2002, selling it five years later. Canal Jean briefly set up shop in Brooklyn on Nostrand Avenue, but is now officially defunct.

The only true vintage clothing shop I know of today just south of Canal Street is Church Street Surplus – I visited in 2015 and they had a great, albeit overpriced selection of authentic goods. I enjoyed talking to the owner’s friendly daughter, who told me a good deal about the history of the shop.

Diners and Dives


Strolling Past Dave’s Corner, December 1976, Copyright Betsy van Die


I was particularly enamored of Dave’s Luncheonette, a 24-hour diner on the southeast corner of Canal and Broadway. I photographed it multiple times, commencing with a visit in December 1976 and periodically from 1977-1979. I never ate inside, but I clearly remember getting an egg cream to go for 65 cents in 1979! Dave’s was still around in 1984, but I’m not certain how much longer it lasted. I also photographed Chock full O’Nuts on the south side of Canal between Lafayette and Broadway, although this restaurant did not possess the visual charm of Dave’s.


Dave’s Luncheonette, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die

Chock full o’Nuts, November 1977, Copyright Betsy van Die


Canal Street Now

In more recent visits, I didn’t appreciate all the dealers hawking fake designer bags and other junk. These crappy souvenir and counterfeit bag stores are not a welcome addition to Canal Street. But according to this article, like the job lot stores of the 1970s-80s, their days may be numbered. On my last visit in August 2018, I did miss one of the fabulous last holdouts on Canal – Argo Electronics had shut its doors after nearly four decades in business. In 2015, I bought a very plain African ebony walking stick there in as is condition for about $5.00. I didn’t see that a good part of it was splintered and it wasn’t worth shipping home, so I finally told my daughter to toss it about a year ago.


Argo Electronics 2015, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York


Even the dubious vendors with piles of hit or miss sweaters sealed (so you can’t inspect them) were not around. No loss, in 2015 I bought two cashmere sweaters, only to discover one had huge moth holes in it – I tossed it in the garbage and donated the other one to a thrift shop because the size was mismarked.

I’ll be posting a larger selection of my treasure trove of vintage black and white NYC photos soon – and high res prints will be available for sale.

Photo sources: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, Library of Congress, Shorpy Historic Picture Archive


  1. Thanks for this, added to my knowledge bank. I worked at Canal Jean Co. around 1975-77 while I went to the School of Visual Arts, and ate at Dave’s Corner (as we called it) 4-5 times a week. The food was usually cooked by a Lebanese chef named Alfie, and my favourite waitress was Shirley. I ended up doing a few hand drawn ads for Ira for the Village Voice. It was great time for a skinny NJ kid to be exploring it all. I met John Belushi, Gilda Radner, a few of the Kinks, and other characters shopping for costumes in the original version of the store.

    • Hi Lisa – Thanks so much for sharing your memories. I looked at your website – the tranquil beauty of your Lunan Bay studio is worlds away from the grittiness of NYC – especially in the 1970s. Your glass pieces are unique and exquisite. Did you study briefly at RISD?

  2. Nelson Sievers

    When I was about 10 years old, around 1960, I accompanied my father on a trip to Manhattan from our Queens home where we ended up strolling down Canal Street. I was immediately fascinated by all of the “neat” surplus electronics and machinery that was splayed out in front of the shops. I wanted to buy everything in sight, but my allowance only provided enough cash to buy a few little gadgets to tinker with. I would go back there occasionally as an adult in the 1970’s and the fascination was still present. Some great memories.

  3. So great to see storefronts of my childhood. Growing up in Orange Co. NY, we traveled to NYC to do business. My father got supplies for his carpentry business there.

    I was always glad to accompany my father to Canal Street and Pearl Paint and Industrial Plastics. I have a vivid memory of some kind of surplus store on Canal Street. I remember they had large barrels of kids plastic jewelry and toys. I was so thrilled to get a handful of plastic “gold” rings with plastic gemstones. It couldn’t have been better if it was real gold, as a child it thrilled me and was like I had treasure.

    Can’t remember for the life of me what the store was called, but they had all sorts of “overstock” types of things too. Got “Dunlop” sneakers there. Hey they made tires, why not rubber sneaker soles!

    Dad is gone years now, wish I could relive that memory with him. If anyone remembers what the name of a place like that was, would love to know. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  4. Jonathan E Grant

    Can you please provide me with the address where Canal Hardware last existed? I understand it is now a restaurant.

  5. Liliana Perez

    Thank you for taking the time to write a very thorough and insightful article. Bravo 🙌

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