Orchard Street, 1908

Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century was an incredibly crowded melting pot of cultures, at times reportedly holding the title of most-densely-populated region in the world. This particular scene, shot in 1908 by Lewis Hine, shows Orchard Street roughly from Stanton Street looking north toward Houston Street. Trash fills the gutters, children wander unattended, and display stands of a wide variety of goods and wares crowd the sidewalks beneath a multitude of awnings and advertisements. Several of the buildings pictured have survived the tumultuous century since this was taken, most notably a few of the tenement structures on the east side of Orchard. But most buildings were razed over the ensuing decades, including all of those shown on Houston Street in the distance, which met the wrecking ball in the 1930s┬áto make way for the IND subway lines.

Orchard Street 1908 Lewis Hine NYPL 416563

Photo by Lewis Hine (1874-1940), courtesy of the NY Public Library Digital Archive.


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A Garment Worker, ca 1910

I’m fortunate enough to work in New York’s fashion industry. But with my background in history, I’m accutely aware of the important place in the city’s past held by garment manufacturing. By 1910, Manhattan’s Garment District (encompassing roughly the area between 34th and 42nd Streets west of Fifth Avenue) provided 70% of the clothing worn by America’s female population. But as technology improved and overseas labor prices dropped, garment production has increasingly become an outsourced industry. Though many fashion houses continue to maintain their headquarters and affiliated white-collar administrative and executive staffs in New York, the “Garment District” as a functioning industrial area has dramatically declined. Rising foreign labor costs and a growing “Buy American” movement are beginning to breathe new life into the neighborhood, but long gone, perhaps forever, are the days when thousands of men, women, and children labored over sewing machines to clothe the nation. The below photo, captured circa 1910 by Lewis Hine, is a splendid representation of what once was.

Garment Worker ca 1910 NYPL 416559

Photo by Lewis Hine (1874-1940), courtesy of the NY Public Library Digital Archive.

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The 1848 High Bridge Over the Harlem River

High Bridge Construction 1862

The water tunnel of the aqueduct being laid across the High Bridge, ca 1862.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

What is now known as New York City had a water problem in the 19th century. Its burgeoning population required copious amounts of it for industry, cleaning, drinking, and bathing. But that same population was rapidly polluting the freshwater rivers which ran through the city and its harbor was an undrinkable mix of fresh and ocean saltwater. So it was that, between 1837 and 1841, New York assembled some of the nation’s foremost engineering minds to construct the Croton Aqueduct to carry clean, fresh water 41 miles south from the Croton River in Westchester County. The last geographic hurdle over which they had to leap was the question of crossing the Harlem River to get the aqueduct directly onto Manhattan Island. Tunneling technology at the time was dangerously unrefined, leading to the decision to construct a bridge – a “high” bridge – across a narrow portion of the Harlem River between Manhattan and The Bronx that would be tall enough to allow boat traffic to flow unimpeded.

High Bridge 1872 NYPL

The High Bridge with its reservoir and water tower in Washington Heights. Pedestrians can be seen strolling the path along the bridge’s top.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

Spanning more than 2,000 feet and standing more than 100 feet above the river’s surface, the bridge was completed in 1848. At its Manhattan end, a reservoir was constructed to supply fresh water to the then-small population of upper Manhattan, which consisted mainly of stately country homes and ramshackle farming villages. In 1872, a rather ornate water tower was constructed next to the reservoir to provide the pressure necessary to pump water from the reservoir throughout Washington Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods.

High Bridge 68102 NYPL

A postcard depicting the High Bridge and its water tower circa 1900. View is to the west from the Bronx toward Manhattan.
Photo from the NYPL Digital Archive.

This postcard, printed by the Detroit Printing Company some time just after 1900, shows the High Bridge at about 60 years old, still with its original design intact. The 1872 water tower stands proudly on the Manhattan side of the span. In 1928, citing navigational difficulties along the Harlem River, the central portion of the bridge was demolished and replaced by a single steel arch. By 1934, the reservoir and water tower had fallen into antiquation and disuse, and they were absorbed by the Parks Department. The reservoir was renovated and converted into a public swimming pool, and the surrounding open land became Highbridge Park.

High Bridge, Washington Heights

An excellent overheard view from the High Bridge as it looked in 2009. Abandoned for decades, rust and graffiti had corrupted its steel central span, and weeds grew freely among the cobblestones on its top.
Photo by Barry Yanowitz, hosted on his Flickr page. Link in photo.

But by the 1970s and 80s, the park and its surrounding neighborhood had fallen onto hard times. The High Bridge, once a serene promenade for Uptown’s refined society, had become a dangerous breeding ground for crime. In 1984, arsonists set the wooden cupola of the water tower ablaze, causing it to collapse in on itself. It wasn’t repaired until a fundraising drive was successfully completed in 1990. But the bridge continued to sit, virtually untouched, with huge steel doors and barbed wire deterring anyone from crossing its dramatic span. Luckily, fortunes are beginning to turn around for Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and their shared bridge. At long last, scaffolding surrounds the central span as it is rehabilitated to once again welcome pedestrian and bicycle traffic. 165 years after its completion, the High Bridge remains a proud and impressive landmark.

High Bridge Rendering

An architectural rendering of what the High Bridge will look like upon its reopening.
Photo courtesy the NYC Parks Dept via an article by Tatum Taylor in The Architects Newspaper. Link in photo.

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A Pawn Shop and a Fat Men’s Store in 1937

This photo was taken on February 4, 1937 by widely-admired photographer Berenice Abbott. She spent much of the 1930s documenting the rapidly-changing face of New York City. Ordinarily a photo of a seemingly generic storefront wouldn’t have caught my eye. But I absolutely love the fact that the “Stuyvesant Curiosity Shop” at 48 Third Avenue has its selection of “shotguns and rifles” on proud display outside on the sidewalk.

And my other favorite little days-gone-by detail? “Sig Klein Fat Men’s Shop” – so much for political correctness. Some light digging reveals Klein’s to be somewhat of a legend among plus-sized clothing stores, with its portly mascot in a form-fitting bodysuit and the slogan “If everyone was fat, there would be no war.” Klein’s opened in the 1880s when this area of the East Village was filled with German men who, through their love of beer, were growing larger and larger. It managed to stay in business at least until the late 1960s, and today it is little more than a memory. A comical memory at that.

Pawn Shop 1936 Berenice Abbott NYPL

Further details on the history of Klein’s Fat Men’s Shop can be found at the wonderful blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York. (He also has a great piece discussing the Stuyvesant Curiosity Shop.)

Photo credit goes to Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) whose photo collection is available in the NY Public Library’s Digital Archive. Photo ID 482686.

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A Policeman Near Herald Square in 1896

Staten Island photographer Alice Austen snapped this casual scene of a policeman standing on a cobblestone-sheathed Broadway near West 36th Street in 1896. Behind him, the architectural details of the New York Herald Building are on splendid display. The building, designed by Stanford White, had just been completed the year before, in 1895, and was based on the 1476 Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona. The small, dark figures on the building’s roofline are two of the twenty-six bronze owls that Herald editor James Gordon Bennett had installed. Though the building was demolished in segments – the northern half in 1921 and the southern half in 1940 – several of its owls, along with its clanging bell tower, have been installed in Herald Square as a memorial to Bennett.

Policeman 1896 Alice Austen NYPL 79769

Behind the Herald Building, a 6th Avenue Elevated Train rumbles along. The El was constructed in the 1870s and remained in use until 1938, by which time it had been replaced by the IND 6th Avenue Subway Line. Its tracks were dismantled in 1939.

Here is the same view on October 3, 2013 (photo taken by the author):

Policeman 2013

Further detail on the history of the Herald Building can be found at one of my favorite NY History Blogs: daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com

Photo credit goes to Alice Austen (1866-1952) whose photo collection is available in the NY Public Library’s Digital Archive. Photo ID 79769.

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