Friday, February 23, 2018


"Personally, we should be willing to read one volume about every street in the city, and should still ask for more."
                             Virginia Woolf, "London Revisited", TLS, November 9th, 1916

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Keeping Your Hand In?

This is one of my favorites.

Several people have suggested, kindly, and with good intentions, that I work on improving my photography skills.  They're absolutely right.  I've been telling myself this for years, and maybe this year I'll buckle down to it.  My problem is that I don't take any of what I do here too seriously.  I can't imagine leaving the house without some kind of camera, but mostly I take pictures just to remind myself of what I've seen.  I never think of myself as a photographer.  New York is teeming with truly fine photographers - I'm lucky enough to know some of them - and I never aspire to have even one ounce of that talent or dedication.  Ditto writing.  Part of this is cultural genetics - growing up in a country where you never embarrassed yourself by looking as if you were trying too hard.  Part of it, sadly is a character flaw - a underdeveloped sense of ambition.  Part of it is knowing, all too well, one's limitations.  But that's not all of it.  The pleasure for me is in the recording, not in how something is set down. Though I've set a mostly daily routine on the blog, I rarely linger long on posts. I'm mostly concerned with things I notice when I'm out walking. In training myself to see, and looking for things that might otherwise go unnoticed and lost.  Much of this is mundane, but I'm all for the rescue of the minor detail.   Look carefully, and even a familiar place changes every second. Each time you walk a street it's rearranged itself.  If I've captured a few of shimmers of movement, I'm happy.

Of all the blogs I've read, my absolute favourite is Spitalfields Life, a beautiful portrait of London's East End, past and present.  It's been around since 2009, and is written daily.  I only discovered it fairly recently. I can't imagine the time and dedication that goes into Spitalfields Life.  The writing is of such fine quality -  tender, modest, discriminating prose.  I urge you all to take a look, whether you have a connection to England or not.  You'll fall under The Gentle Author's spell.

Signs Old & New

Bay River Wines & Liquors changed hands in 2014, and the new owners told me back then they were planning to change the store sign.  Four years on, the new sign is finally in place.

The earliest Bay River references I've found date from 1934, in Brooklyn Eagle  liquor store ads.  The business is listed as both the Bay River Wine Company, and the Bay River Wine & Liquor Store.  But it's not at its current address; it's several stores south, in the building that now houses Crunch.

What a lot of Olds in the ad. above.  Of the two other stores listed there, Lanter's is now Bklyn Clay, and the South Brooklyn Liquor Company is likely today's Prime Time Liquors (a fine name), one door up from 429.  There are also other references in the Eagle to a Bay River Wine Co., presumably the store on Fifth, or a business operating in tandem with it.

Notice is hereby given that the Bay River Wine Co. Inc. of Brooklyn, New York, has registered its trademarks "Old Mallory Club," "Spring Hill," "Spring Farm," and "Bay River" with the Secretary of State of New York, to be used on labels, and on bottles, barrels and receptacles, containing gin, whiskey, brandies, cordials, vodka, cocktails, rum, champagne, distilled wines, distilled liquors and alcoholic beverages of every description.  (1935)

In 1947, a couple more trademark names pop up: "Fior de Casa" and "Kenny," both "for use on receptacles containing alcoholic beverages of all kinds." Wouldn't it be nice to head to the liquor store to pick up a bottle of Kenny?

Though it's uncertain when the Bay River company was founded, its president, Anton Berger, was around on the liquor scene early in the century. In 1909 a salesman of the same name was fined $100 for selling a bottle of whiskey to a Barrier Island resident, without paying the required revenue tax.  Undeterred by this little run-in, Berger clearly had alcohol ambitions. In 1919 he was named as a co-director of the Medicinal Wines & Spirits Corporation of Brooklyn.  In order to get around Prohibition regulations, the company's official plan was to supply drug stores with "medicinal" liquor, only sold to customers arriving with a doctor's prescription.  Around the same time Berger was also involved in the building trade. By the 1930's, Berger, mustached and on the portly side, appears to have become a stalwart establishment figure, chairman of the Men's Club of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center, Congregation Sheiras Israel, and chairman of the Center's board of trustees.

As a regular, but not a frequent customer, I haven't noticed much change in the Bay River/Park Slope store since 2014.  It's still unpretentious, and it still serves a mixed crowd of customers.  I liked the elderly couple that used to run the place - a sometimes sweet and sometimes curt or jokey pair -  but the new owners are friendly too.  I'd often run into the sock seller at Bay River.  He'd been in poor health for a long time, and in recent years had trouble walking.  Over time he became a sadder and sadder figure, and I could hardly bear to see him sitting on Prospect Avenue, waiting hopefully for drive-by customers.

The last time I saw him, a year or two ago, he was in very bad shape, and I gave him some money towards a prescription.  I never saw him again.  I'm assuming the worst, but if anyone has any news about him, I'd like to hear it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sacred & Profane

Sunnyside, 2012

I've been going through years of old photographs, and realize how many I have of front yard religious statuary.  Sometimes the figures are enclosed by perspex, or held secure by wire or twine.  Even when protected, they almost always bear the marks of time.  I think it might be time for a little series.

On History

"And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that."
                                             from Why I Became a Historical Novelist  - Hilary Mantel (Guardian)

Monday, February 19, 2018


Another corner development on Fourth.  An Alt 1 permit been issued for vertical enlargement of the corner building 561 Fourth (at 16th Street).  Plans specify an additional two floors, making a five-story building, though to my uninformed eyes the rendering seems to suggest three more full floors.  Eight residential units are planned. 

With this new expansion, and the large development at Fourth and Prospect Ave. underway, the buildings in the middle of the block will be increasingly jammed in and overshadowed.  The stores in the brick buildings next to 561 have remained empty for some time.  I wonder what's on the cards.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lit Up

A hallway time capsule: a listing stairway and a fluorescent glare revealing layers of chocolate & linoleum.   Not so much the building as the colors bringing back first days in the city.  Public spaces lit in a way that was harsh, gassy, bilious even.  I still remember how foreign that light was, and how intoxicating. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Train traffic ahead

The Efficient City’s war on the Romantic City… (Current Affairs)
The Romantic city is a democratic city: everyone has their little piece of it, nobody can simply reshape the entire place in accordance with their preferences. But the emerging version of New York City is a place where a disproportionate amount of power is held by landlords and developers, who can essentially do as they please.

Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday: Musings & Photos  (photographer Larry Racioppo at Brooklynology)
Today is the first time since 1945 that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day. This rare occurrence has made me think about the significance of each day and what they symbolize: Ash Wednesday – death, Valentine’s Day – romantic love.

Tokens of unrequited love? Thames yields 'crooked coins' tossed in by romantics (The Gentle Author at The Guardian)
During the reign of William III, in the second half of the 17th century, it was the fashion for a young man to give a crooked coin to the object of his affections.
The suitor would bend the coin, both to make it an amulet and to prevent it being reused. If the token was kept, it indicated that affection was reciprocated, but if the coin was discarded then it was a rejection.

A survey of Canal Street’s changing landscape (Nathan Kensinger at Curbed)
Canal Street should be one of New York City’s greatest thoroughfares. It’s lined with a pleasant mix of unique buildings; it passes through several thriving neighborhoods and historic districts; and it houses dozens of small mom-and-pop businesses, many of which have been there for more than 50 years.
Instead, Canal Street is currently one of the city’s worst commercial streetscapes, blighted by empty storefronts and an array of increasingly generic new buildings. A walk along its entire 1.4 mile stretch, which runs 26 blocks from West Street to East Broadway, reveals a grand boulevard in crisis, with its street life choked out by real estate speculators, and traffic so bad that transit advocates have taken to calling it “Manhattan’s Boulevard of Death.”

AECOM & the Chamber of commerce want to tell us how to live, an essay by George Fiala (Red Hook Star Revue)
What disgusted me was the glib smugness at which these chamber of commerce types toasted themselves for recognizing the hidden billions to be made simply by transforming a longshoreman’s operation into a stand of gleaming skyscrapers full of luxury condo apartments.
The speeches began with Chris Ward stating what he has told me in person that the AECOM plan that includes 45,000 new apartments in buildings scattered along our shoreline was simply a conversation starter.

How One Subway Closure in Queens Wrecked a Community - And what it could mean for the upcoming L train shutdown. (Vice)
... if you stare down 30th Avenue from its eastern or western ends, you’ll notice that residential and commercial energy flows from a power center: the 30th Avenue N/W subway that runs through its center. Where businesses are located roughly follows the paths where residents walk to, and from, the subway. The morning and evening rush hours there remind me of this scene from the ethereal film Baraka of Shibuya crossing in Tokyo , where it looks as if the station itself is a beating heart, pumping people in and out.
Actually, let’s keep going with that heart metaphor just for a second. Because since the 30th Avenue station shut down in late October for eight months, the businesses here have gone into nothing short of cardiac arrest.

How Did We Get Hooked on Plastic? (BBC)
The story of how the search for a material to replace ivory changed our lives forever. In the 19th century a billiard ball company placed an advert in a newspaper offering $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a substitute for ivory. There was growing concern that companies were hunting elephants into extinction so they could use their ivory for billiard balls, buttons and umbrella handles. The story that follows takes us from explosive factories that often went up in smoke to the modern world we find ourselves in today. How did plastics go from being a saviour of the environment to a cause for concern? How did we get hooked on plastic?

Every Bottle Counts – A Photo Essay on Brooklyn’s Chinese Grandmas Who Collect Returnable Containers (Feet in 2 Worlds)
“It’s a tough job, my hands have bruises, and it’s smelly. My kids don’t want me to do it. They are ashamed. But they are working so hard, their lives are hard. I want to do whatever I can do to help,” said Grandma Cheng. She relies on her children for support. She started collecting cans 3 or 4 years ago. She writes down the number of cans she has collected to remember and make sure that the recycling center does not miscalculate the numbers.

Enroll your building to receive a refashionNYC collection bin. (DSNY)
Tax receipts are available on the bin. Our partnership with Housing Works provides this convenient collection while fighting the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS. We’ll visit your building to discuss how many bins you’d like, what sizes are best and where they should be placed. Buildings simply call or email for a free pick up when the bin is full.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Wayfaring Stranger

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you
You must travel it for yourself.
                                                            Walt Whitman

A while back I got to thinking about the difference between the Romantic, solitary wayfarer, and the timid wayfinder, incapable of navigating even the simplest of routes without the intervention of urban planners.  We know which camp Johnny Cash falls into, in life and in art.  There are many fine interpretations of Wayfaring Stranger, the song of the last journey, but this one sends shivers down the spine.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gowanus on the Move

I'd been meaning to get down to Hamilton Plaza for a while, but was distracted by other stuff. So life goes. Finally I found a little time.  Of the older commercial businesses in the Plaza, only Big J's liquor store is still open.  They'll be around until the end of the month, and then they're off to Red Hook, right off Hamilton Avenue on Clinton.  They hope to be open in the new location by the end of March.

I cut through Lowe's parking lot and headed back up 9th.  A community-oriented yoga studio, Abyaha Yoga, opened up last fall, but the next-door, high-end, antique furniture store Find appears to have closed.  Price wise, Find wasn't much of one for me.  Up a block, the grocery turned Alcoholics Anonymous center is now a hand-crafted furniture store, Creation Therrien.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Everything Only Connected?

Hot on the heels of the Hujar show I find myself at Nelson Molina's trash museum at the E. 99th St. Sanitation garage.  You couldn't find two more disparate collections, could you?  The pure formality of Hujar's art, its milieu the demi-monde of the 70's & 80's Downtown scene, its focus expressions of gender, selfhood, mortality.  A sanman's haul of garbage treasure, a mongo hoard vast and wondrous in scope - objects discarded as trash lovingly rescued and arranged in groups that redeem and enhance their worth .  Molina's trash sense is so refined that even the feel and the sound of a bag as it's lifted from the curb can tell him if something of value is hidden inside.

Still, Time's brief, unlikely partners complement each other. Each presents an alternative New York City history of people and streets and things.  Ethyl Eichelberger, in drag or unadorned,  Candy Darling posed on her hospital deathbed.  Gary Indiana veiled.  Sets of six-tracks, 45s and albums (Hands Up, Give Me Your Heart!).  Letters and journals and photographs, plastic collectibles, campaign pins.  A row of crudely painted amateur art gains dignity and strength arranged in numbers. Who'd have guessed?  Red heels dusted with glitter, each curled pointed toe affixed with a golden star, could get up and dance.

All the abandoned, lost, and overlooked find another life in the garage.  Released from their ordained roles, they shine.

On the walls of the garage there's a hand-written sign, repeated: Become Your Dream. 

Note: I got to see Nelson Molina's treasure-house on a tour arranged by The City Reliquary. This event is connected to the Museum's current show, NYC Trash! Past, Present and Future, which runs through April 29th.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Speed of Life


"It’s hard to say which is more surprising: that Peter Hujar’s photographs of 1970s and ’80s underground life in New York life have found their way to the Morgan Library & Museum, or that this Classically-minded institution has become unbuttoned enough to exhibit them in a heartbreaker of a show called “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life."

...It demonstrates that each of Hujar’s photographs is a stand-alone object, masterfully conceived and printed, complete in itself. Yet the work overall is the product of a single complex, difficult sensibility. It shares a pervasive and insistent atmosphere of otherness, and — this comes through only gradually — a spirit of level-eyed fortitude in the face of damage."

                                                                                                 Holland Cotter, New York Times

Thursday, February 8, 2018

St. James Place & James Street

At the former St. James parochial school, currently the Transfiguration Upper School 

Alfred E. Smith at Coney Island, age 4. 1877 (Museum of the City of New York)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


It's been suggested to me that the state of the Chambers St. J Z station is Cuomo's fuck you to de Blasio.  Of course, it's been in dismal condition long before either Governor or Mayor took office, and it's certainly not the only station in the system that awaits long overdue repairs.  But its situation, right by City Hall, is sublime.  A potent symbol in the Transit Wars.  In 2003 the station was voted ugliest in the system, but this one's special, a very Temple of Decrepitude, with its long-abandoned side platforms, its fissured pillars, and its high, paint-encrusted ceilings.  One of the Seven Wonders of the Subway World?  You have to be a little bit in love.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


I was trying to find an online link to the Home Owners' Loan Corporation maps of NYC.  The old links I had didn't work anymore; I only had an image of this one.

The Word was on my mind all morning, and even, to my surprise, on the street. I doubt the guys at Redline knew the association (or maybe?), but there was irony to spare; here was a rowhouse waiting to go townhouse, or even townhome. It was in the red (pink) zone in 1938, but the colors had all changed; now it was solid blue, or even poised for green.  

Maps (2013)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

(Water, Transit, Jail, Giant, & Remarkable Women) Links

Waterfront Events (Waterfront Alliance)
New York Harbor offers so many ways to have fun and explore our waterfront. Head out on the water for kayaking or sailing trips. Learn and get involved through conferences, or workshops. Bring family and friends for lively festivals and holiday celebrations.

Gloria Nicholson: Memories of growing up in a Jones Walk rooming house in 1940s Coney Island
(Coney Island History Project)
Gloria Nicholson was born in Coney Island in 1940 and grew up in a rooming house that her mother Josephine Boyce managed on Jones Walk and the Bowery. It overlooked the Virginia Reel and Wonder Wheel, which she often rode.  During the summer her father Sakazo "Tish" Tashiro managed a scooter ride owned by the Handwerkers and located next to Nathan's. She reminisces about unusual attractions and the cast of characters who populated her childhood including Ned Tilyou, Tirza's Wine Baths, Shatzkins Knishes, the Shark Lady, and fortune-telling myna birds.

New N.Y.C. Transit Head, ‘Obsessive About Detail,’ Takes Charge (WSJ)
He is aware of the political battles going on around him, but he says his job is to give professional advice. “I am determined in this job to maintain my integrity and to speak truth to power and not to compromise my principles,” he said.

Turnaround: Fixing New York City's Buses (Transit Center)
Fixing the bus system in New York has never been so urgent. If the MTA, the NYCDOT, and the elected officials who represent riders can find the courage to tackle the problem, New York can reverse the bus system’s decline and reclaim its place as a center of transit innovation and leadership, locally and worldwide.

Your Train is Delayed.  Why? (NY Times)
New York City subways have the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world.  This is the story of how we ended up in a state of emergency.

Why Did the EPA's Gowanus Canal Pilot Dredging Program Damage a Building? (Brownstoner)
The first steps of the Gowanus cleanup have not gone according to plan.
At a meeting for the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group last Tuesday, Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s project manager for the cleanup, announced that the contractor had run into some issues installing bulkheads at the 4th Street Basin, which are necessary before the dredging can begin.

A Correction Officer’s Conviction Signals Deeper Troubles at Brooklyn’s Federal Jail
(City Limits)
Last Friday, Carlos Richard Martinez, a former lieutenant and corrections officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, faces life in prison after being found guilty on 20 counts, including sexual abuse and deprivation of an inmate’s civil rights.
The indictment is the latest episode in the saga of Brooklyn’s largest jail, which has attracted attention over allegations of poor conditions and a track record of sexual abuse, as brought to light in investigations by advocates and media, and documented in countless legal testimonies over the past several years. But if the trial of Martinez has reached an end, the case has only added grist to a growing outcry over conditions at the MDC, and the failure to prevent sexual assault both there and nationwide.

Amazon fulfillment centers don't boost employment, analysis finds (Guardian)
States and cities have fallen over themselves to offer huge tax breaks to Amazon in the hope of securing one of the tech giant’s order fulfillment centers. But an analysis of the impact of the centers released on Thursday found the facilities do not boost overall employment in the counties where they open.

Beattie Orwell, Centenarian (Spitalfields Life)
A magnanimous woman who delights in the modest joys of life, Beattie is nevertheless a political animal who is proud to be one of the last living veterans of the Battle of Cable St – a formative experience that inspired her with a fiercely egalitarian sense of justice and led to her becoming a councillor in later life, acutely conscious of the rights of the most vulnerable in society.

So Long, Milly Rich (Spitalfields Life)
I am from the last place I have lived! But I was born at 19 Commercial Rd on October 23rd 1917, which of course was during the First World War and my mother, Leah, told me that the air raid warnings were sounding at the time. People were terrified of air raids but my she had a basement under her shop in Commercial Rd where she took shelter.
My mother made corsets and she taught me to make them too. Corsets were a vital part of a lady’s outfit in those days because – of course – smart clothes needed a good foundation and a good foundation was a nice heavily-boned corset with a strong steel bust in the front. Everybody had remarkably good posture, not slumped – like you see today – over a hand-held computer.

Eva Frankfurther, Artist (Spitalfields Life)
There is an unmistakeable melancholic beauty which characterises Eva Frankfurther‘s East End drawings made during her brief working career in the nineteen-fifties. Born into a cultured Jewish family in Berlin in 1930, she escaped to London with her parents in 1939 and studied at St Martin’s School of Art between 1946 and 1952, where she was a contemporary of Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach.
Yet Eva turned her back on the art school scene and moved to Whitechapel, taking menial jobs at Lyons Corner House and then at a sugar refinery, immersing herself in the community she found there. Taking inspiration from Rembrandt, K├Ąthe Kollwitz and Picasso, Eva set out to portray the lives of working people with compassion and dignity.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Cheek by Jowl

We can't resist another Brooklyn Union Gas tank. It's at the Citizens' Works plant, at Fifth & Hoyt Streets. The photograph was taken by P.L Sperr in the summer of 1937, from Smith and 5th. The resolution isn't too good here, but what a shot.  Just look how the tank looms over that run of small wooden houses - presumably it's one of the "mammoth" ones the Eagle referred to.


Sperr's notes indicate the houses as nos. 11 to 21, but he's sometimes inaccurate with numbers and street names.  I think the house at left could be no. 13, not 11.  At any rate, only two of the houses in the photograph - 13 and 15 - still stand today.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

B.P. (Before Pathmark)

Hamilton Plaza and part of the Lowes site stand on the ground of the old Metropolitan Gas Company. A small gas plant is indicated on the Hopkins map of 1880, right at the same location as the supermarket.  The plant quickly expands, and by 1903 has also taken up space on the southern side of the block.

A Brooklyn Eagle article of 1911 - Active Industrial Region In Vicinity of Gowanus Canal, Ninth Street and Hamilton Avenue - describes the rapid pace of industrial growth in the immediate vicinty

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, gas manufacturing prior to 1915 was coal-based, after which time the plant was converted to a carbureted water gas process.  A Belcher Hyde map from 1916 shows the layout of the plant..

An Eagle article of 1931 talks storage tank size.

By the late 1930's only the storage tank structures remained; production at the site had been discontinued.

SW corner of 12th Street, from Second Avenue - P.L. Sperr, 1941 (NYPL)

Here's a view of the corner today.

Though the Metropolitan storage tank(s) may have been "Lilliputian," and gas production discontinued long ago, under 12th Street there's a still a hefty piece of gas company history.  One of the biggest gas mains in the borough runs up the slope from the canal.  Like the rest of the city's infrastructure, it's getting on a bit by now.

For more on this part of Gowanus, including more of Sperr's work, read here.