Friday, January 18, 2019


Excelsior looking swamped by empty storefronts, with (New) Shirly Nails a couple of blocks north, the Kindest Deli not finding its kindness returned, & Jake's Handcrafted (formerly Der Kommissar) closed a month or so back.  This little low-lying strip looks like a vulnerable retail location - I hope Excelsior will be able to hang in there.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On Stage: Mlle Beatrice

No wind & a temperature just above freezing make good walking weather, with no hats or gloves needed.  I hate hats and gloves. And at home I've been reading more - Moby Dick finally conquered! - and working my way through the NYPL Billy Rose Collection of theater photographs. I'm particularly drawn to the nineteenth & early twentieth-century popular theater & vaudeville pictures. Maybe it's time for a little winter series.

Many of the photographs in the Rose collection - especially the earlier ones - come with little in the way of documentation, but cigarette or publicity cards like this one are helpful. Elmer E. Vance's Limited Mail Co. right there under the subject's name does the trick. A review of a Vance production, Treasure Island, recently arrived at the Bijou Theater, on Smith Street, mentions the youthful Beatrice.

                               Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 3rd, 1901

"As the delineator of the harum-scarum boy, this tiny girl has no superior."

The Eagle article also reproduces the photograph of Beatrice shown above. Ohio-born Elmer Vance, who started his career as a telegraph operator (or lightning slinger) & train dispatcher made a rapid transition to dramatist and theater producer around 1890. By 1891 he was the manager of Niblo's Garden theater on Broadway near Prince Street. The production for which he became best known, the railway-themed Limited Mail (1892) brought him great success, and ran for years. One season alone netted $60,000 in profit.  Vance married (the much younger?) Beatrice (Conway) in 1894, in Camden, New Jersey. In 1905 Beatrice Vance appears in her husband's first musical production, The Girl and the MoonThe Washington Post describes her "remarkably beautiful soprano," but reserves its highest praise for her appearance on horseback as queen of the circus.

Niblo's Garden closed down in 1905.  Did the Vances stay successful or did times get leaner? A booklet printed in 1915 advertises Beatrice Vance, of Elmer Vance Theatrical Enterprises. as a "Prima Donna Soubrette," with a "Novelty Singing and Dancing Change Act." It's hard to tell, but things look a bit more modest.  Beatrice, though,  is as plucky and versatile as ever.

By 1915 the advent of silent movies was beginning to impact the careers of popular stage artists; some of them made the transition to screen work, and cinema and live acts were often shown in combination, but traditional vaudeville shows were on the decline. I'd like to know what happened to the couple after 1915, but the (amateurish online) trail ran cold.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Shopping on Sixth

Model Airplanes - 464 Sixth Avenue

Forget Fifth, or the less bustling Seventh.  At one time, my old neighbor Sal told me, you could get pretty much all you needed on Sixth.  I believed him, but it was difficult to match his memories to the avenue I knew.  By then the retail on Sixth was reduced to corner bodegas and laundromats - handy places, but hardly supplying all life's basic needs.  Today the bodegas have almost vanished too, and laundromats are thinner on the ground.  The other day I took a three block sample, from 9th to 12th; the businesses there now cater strictly to a niche market. 1. Fitness & health: Feldenkrais movement center, physical training, a chiropractor & medical offices. 2. Kids: three nursery school premises, a children's cooking space & a writing center.  3. Restaurants & cafes: Colson & Toto (mayoral hangouts), Muse, & Soigne.  4. An art gallery.  (Oh & a laundromat & a real estate office.)

Sixth (9th/10th)

Sixth at 11th

When Sal was a kid, in the 1940s, this stretch of Sixth teemed with stores.  Today, most of their windows have been long bricked up & the spaces inside are residential.  It's easy to spot the switch, but impossible to know what stores they replaced.  Thankfully, the DOF tax photos came to my rescue, showing us where Sal & his family shopped.  Pre-supermarket, pre-Fresh Direct, day-to-day shopping was local & specific.  On 9th to 12th there were two print shops, three delis and groceries, a butcher's, roofing, plumbing and carpentry shops, two barbers, a shoe repair shop, a hats-cleaned-and-blocked store, two restaurant/bars, a shoe shine parlor, a tire & auto supply shop, a liquor store, two clothing/watch & jewelry stores, a radio/photo shop, an appliance store, a shoe store, a model airplane store, and a corner drug store/ice cream parlor.  There were also several other stores whose purpose I couldn't determine, their signs lost in photographic blur..

Friedland drug store & ice cream parlor - Sixth & 12th

Delicatessen, Leah's, 438 - 442 Sixth

If there was all that retail activity in just three blocks, you can imagine the vibrancy of all of Sixth then, along with avenues like Third and Fourth, which have followed similar retail cycles over the last eighty years.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Carpenter

The one grand stage where he enacted all his various parts so manifold, was his vice-bench; a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood. At all times except when whales were alongside, this bench was securely lashed athwartships against the rear of the Try-works.

A belaying pin is found too large to be easily inserted into its hole: the carpenter claps it into one of his ever ready vices, and straightway files it smaller. A lost landbird of strange plumage strays on board, and is made a captive: out of clean shaved rods of right-whale bone, and cross-beams of sperm whale ivory, the carpenter makes a pagoda-looking cage for it. An oarsmen sprains his wrist: the carpenter concocts a soothing lotion. Stubb longed for vermillion stars to be painted upon the blade of his every oar; screwing each oar in his big vice of wood, the carpenter symmetrically supplies the constellation. A sailor takes a fancy to wear shark-bone ear-rings: the carpenter drills his ears. Another has the toothache: the carpenter out pincers, and clapping one hand upon his bench bids him be seated there; but the poor fellow unmanageably winces under the unconcluded operation; whirling round the handle of his wooden vice, the carpenter signs him to clap his jaw in that, if he would have him draw the tooth.
                                                                                                 Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Sign Blitz

Before & after sign removal at Fifth & 9th

The calls to 311 started to pick up steam about a year ago.
They were complaints about an arcane New York City statute requiring special permits for businesses to hang signs or awnings larger than six square feet.
The caller — or callers — was clearly targeting certain commercial strips, making complaints in batches, as on Nov. 26, when calls came in reporting 25 businesses along a two-block stretch of Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The businesses did not have a license for their signs, the complaints said.
But it wasn’t just a couple of days of calls, city data shows. In Brooklyn, the hardest-hit borough, 234 calls about illegal signage were made to New York City’s help line in November — compared with 23 the same month last year. And the calls are still coming in.  (NY Times)

There have been almost 2,000 complaints about illegal signs called in to 311 this year.  The majority of them concern businesses in Brooklyn, with store owners in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge particularly hard hit.  Owners have received Department of Building fines of up to $20,000, and forced to take down their signs and awnings, many of which were erected long before the current store owners set up business.  The heavy fines have sent a wave of panic among small business owners, many of whom are taking preemptive action by removing their signs to avoid being reported to 311 and subsequently fined.

While many store signs technically require city permits, in order to ensure they are safe, this doesn't appear to have been a DOB priority until the unusually large number of complaints required investigation.  But just exactly who is calling in to make the complaints, and why, remains a source of speculation. Could it be sign companies?  Could it be connected to a City-led revenue drive?  Some store owners feel the complaints may reflect racial bias.

Those affected by the fines are asking for a fairer system of enforcement, with reduced penalties, and advance warnings on bringing signs into compliance.  With the support of other City Council members, Rafael Espinal is calling for legislation to put a moratorium on the current surge of fines:

Espinal’s bill now being negotiated between the Council and the administration calls for those who have paid the fine to receive waived permit fees, and expedited permit process for the new sign. There is also discussion for assistance in paying for the new signs. For those that have yet to pay, they will only have to pay 25% of the base fine. There will be a year long moratorium on the Department of Buildings (DOB) issuing of any business awning or sign violations, and an interagency task force established to better coordinate educational outreach.   (King's County Politics)

There's empty space above the grocery store at Fifth & 9th Street today.  The store was hit with fines in recent weeks, and a worker there told me they're fighting the violation in court.  The current scale of fines is unduly punitive to small businesses, who often operate with on paper thin profit margins.  Let's give them a fairer chance to keep afloat.