Collect Pond

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Originally a pastoral recreational area and reservoir during the 1700s, Collect Pond was a source of spring water for early Dutch residents of downtown Manhattan. Located just north of present-day City Hall Park, its water was famous for its clear, sweet taste. In warm weather, picnickers could be found on its shoreline while ice skaters frolicked on the pond during wintery days.

The “tea-water” from a pump at Roosevelt and Chatham Streets provided refreshment and was perfect for brewing exotic “Indian tea”.

Up until the late 1700s, the south shore of Collect Pond was the city’s only burial ground for free blacks and African slaves.

The pond’s 48 acres became a dumping ground for the tanneries and slaughterhouses that occupied the neighborhood during the late 18th century. Local authorities needed to control the smells and filth that were clogging up Collect Pond. An underground spring which fed the pond was eventually widened into a canal and allowed much of the toxic water from Collect Pond to flow into the Hudson. Trees along both sides of the canal did little to shield residences and businesses from the odorous flow.

As the downtown population swelled and the pollution got worse, plans were made to fill in the pond with dirt from Mount Bayard, the highest point in the downtown area. By 1813, the pond was completely filled in. A neighborhood known as Paradise Square was developed on the pond’s site, attracting affluent buyers. When the canal was paved over in 1821, the name Canal Street stuck because residents continued to complain of the foul smells permeating from the waste water. Its residents began to leave in droves. Multi-level buildings could not be constructed around Canal Street because the land remained marshy and mosquito-infested. Land values were cheap and low-level brick and wooden frame houses were built into what would become the beginnings of the Five Points area, which gained notoriety for being the Western world’s most crowded, disease-ridden slum back in the day. Several buildings were prostitution and crime dens; Five Points’ highest murder rate averaged fifteen a night.

Lithograph of Five Points looking north on Orange Street, which would become today’s Baxter Street. Source: Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1860.

Many tenements were razed to build “the Tombs”, erected on the site of Collect Pond in 1838. The courthouse and jail structures were built on a heavy base of hemlock logs to further anchor the buildings onto the unstable land. Despite such measures, the prison was notorious for leaks and its overall dampness throughout the building. Prison breaks, corruption, and scandals established the Tombs’ ill reputation and people began to call for its destruction. The Tombs began to sink and was condemned by the end of the 19th century.

The Tombs’ formal name was “The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention”. Undated photo from the 1800s.

A series of detention buildings occupied the site afterwards, all nicknamed “The Tombs”. The current complex is made up of two buildings connected by a pedestrian walkway and named after Bernard Kerik, former NYC Police Commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The first Tombs building was demolished and this second structure was built in 1902.

The only vehicles seen today at the Kerik Complex belong to NYC police officers. The Tombs are frequently mentioned on crime shows such as Law and Order. Source: plemeljr

In 1960 a portion of the Collect Pond site was designated for park conversion. Currently the park is under re-construction and slated to open sometime later this year. The park has plans for a pond to evoke its historical namesake.

City plans for the park include two shallow ponds that will create a beautiful winter landscape during snowfall.

The foundations of the Tombs were unearthed during Collect Park renovations. Photo: NYC Parks

Under the Bloomberg administration, more space has been reclaimed and revitalized as green spaces than ever before. As revamped Collect Pond Park nears its completion, strollers passing through this area will be able to envision a time when Lower Manhattan was a peaceful, bucolic area and almost be able to block out the blaring sirens of the police cars nearby.

Street of Ships

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Until the latter half of the 20th century, ships played a significant and historic role in the growth and development of New York City. Dutch ships during the colonial period moored around the “Great Dock”, whose approximate location would be today’s South Ferry. Small boats launched off the Great Dock to reach larger boats anchored offshore. Until the 1770s, the Great Dock was the only dock that projected out into the water. The area around the Seaport was a swampy wilderness situated a half-mile north of the original Dutch settlement.

1660 map indicating the Great Dock, which was situated on the southeast tip of New Amsterdam. The canal running through the middle of the colony eventually became Broad Street.

Activity around the Great Dock during 1717-1746.

The Dutch soon began to use landfill to change the geography of lower Manhattan and by 1815, Water, Front, and South Streets were added to the map and extended well past Manhattan’s original shoreline along Pearl Street.

Manhattan's original shoreline hugs Pearl Street.

In 1784, the Empress of China, the first-ever American-built ship made of wood, set off from the South Street Seaport area in hopes of procuring imported tea and porcelain from China. The much-publicized event established the Seaport area as a focal point of international trade in the United States during the late 18th century. The US’ success in trading forged a new identity as a nation separate from its mother country of Great Britain. All trade conducted with China passed through New York before moving onto other ports such as Boston and Philadelphia.

1784 painting of the Empress of China. The ship was financed in Philadelphia and built in Baltimore before setting sail for China from the port of New York.

South Street Seaport was called “the port of New York” during its greatest period of success between the years 1815 and 1860, right before the Civil War. The advent of the ocean liner, a collection of ships that would cross the Atlantic on regular, fixed schedules contributed to the Seaport’s establishment as a major commercial port. Prior to the ocean liner, it was a rare event for ships to arrive and depart on schedule. Ocean liners such as the Black Ball Line, Red Star, and Blue Swallowtail began to sail between New York and Liverpool on set days, and South Street became the busiest port in America to receive goods from across America, Europe, and Asia.

Shipbuilding businesses, auction houses, and residences for seamen could be found in the four- and five-story brick buildings that began to appear along streets such as John, Fulton, and Beekman. The Seaport became even busier after clipper ships were invented; lighter, faster ships that carried large amounts of cargo became a necessity for the success of import companies. Shipbuilders rushed to build the biggest and fastest clippers to meet the demands of international trade, and New York soon developed a reputation for building beautiful, stalwart ships that could withstand the rough waters of long oceanic voyages. Soon the East River became a “street of ships” as piers lined both its Manhattan and Brooklyn shorelines.

The Seaport’s most famous buildings are lined up along Schermerhorn Row. Designed by Peter Augustus Schermerhorn in 1812 for use as “counting houses”, these brick buildings are some of the earliest forms of commercial building during the 19th century. Counting houses essentially were the finance and operations departments of various shipping and import companies.

The buildings along Schermerhorn Row.

Peter Augustus Schermerhorn

As successful seamen and merchants moved away from the Seaport into presumably large and grander digs, businesses in the Seaport area began to diversify. By the mid-19th century, many of the counting houses’ ground floors became renovated storefronts; a grocer could be found at 2 Fulton Street and a boot-maker operated out of 12 Fulton. Both these buildings have been demolished.

This building at the corner of Schermerhorn Row was once a hotel whose guests included a fish dealer, a tug captain, and a poultry dealer. The smaller building to the left, 91 South Street, was a boarding house for workers of German and Swedish descent.

Labor shortages were rare as immigrants began to arrive en masse from Europe. The Seaport began its slow decline as iron and steel ships came to be favored over wooden ships, and buildings along places like Schermerhorn Row started to house boarders from a variety of backgrounds. 90 South Street, now long-gone, had records of residents who were longshoremen, mostly black.

The former Fulton Ferry Hotel, now home to the Heartland Brewery Restaurant.

New York’s shipping business eventually centered along the Hudson River during the early 20th century, and Seaport redevelopment began in earnest during the late 1960s. The South Street Seaport Museum was founded in 1967 to give New Yorkers and visitors alike a glimpse into the Seaport’s rich past. Schermerhorn Row was designated as a New York City landmark in 1968 and in the 1980s, South Street Seaport was born again as a shopping center and tourist attraction.

The Seaport is set to receive yet another major makeover. The Howard Hughes Corporation, current owners of the Seaport, have ambitious plans to tear down the three-level shopping center and build a structure that will house higher-end retail shops. Believing that local residents have largely shunned the naval-themed souvenir shops and chain establishments, city officials are hoping that these new development plans will help the Seaport and its surrounding neighborhood realize its full economic potential. Some locals fear these plans will change the Seaport into another Meatpacking District; developers are searching for anchor tenants along the lines of Saks Fifth Avenue. The new mall will also include a sprawling lawn and a theater with seating for as many as 700 people.

Will these plans change the flavor of the existing neighborhood? Most likely, yes. While no one can argue that the re-development of New York’s waterfront and proliferation of green spaces under the Bloomberg administration has improved the quality of life for many New Yorkers, we don’t need another Time Warner Center. We don’t need a downtown, hipper version of a shopping mecca like Saks. Living in Manhattan is already exorbitantly expensive and out-of-reach for many; proponents of the plan aren’t against big corporate chains, they’re against big corporate chains that don’t charge $300 or more for a pair of shoes and ultimately, bring in less tax revenue for a city that has become a playground and shopping mall for the wealthy.

The Meatpacking District used to look like this in 1890.

The Meatpacking District today, all cleaned up with expensive, trendy boutiques and restaurants. Think Olsen twins. Will the Seaport have a similar fate?

I’m not against plans to breathe new life into the Seaport. What I am strongly advocating for is a plan to redevelop the Seaport into a recreational, entertainment, and shopping area that has a little something for everyone in New York City and preserves the Seaport’s storied past. I am content to let the past stay in the past, but seeing how “redevelopment” has often changed the character of various neighborhoods in New York City, any future plans for the Seaport should be more inclusive of the diverse needs and backgrounds of all New Yorkers.

Hell’s Hundred Acres

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Soho has undergone many transformations throughout its history, and was not always the hub of trendy boutiques and chains that it is today. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Soho development earnestly began when Collect Pond was filled and its water diverted to the Hudson River. Middle-class families inhabited Federal-style rowhomes and by the 1800s, Soho had become a popular commercial district with theaters and retailers such as Lord and Taylor, Tiffany & Co., and the long-gone Haughwout Emporium.

Collect Pond looking south towards New York City in 1798. Lower Manhattan's topography was hillier and some of the dirt from Mount Bayard on the left was used to fill in Collect Pond.

Niblo's Garden was a popular 19th-century theater in Soho.

The Haughwout Emporium, owned by Eder V. Haughwout, was opened for business on March 23, 1857 and a manufacturer/purveyor of fine china, cut glass, silverware and chandeliers. The New York Times described it as “the greatest china and porcelain house in the city” in the 1850s. The Haughwout Building also boasted the first commercial elevator designed and installed by Elisha Graves Otis for $300. The elevator moved at .67 feet per second and had an automatic safety device. The building’s first three floors were designated for retail and the 4th and 5th floors held its manufacturing operations.

The Houghwout Building in 1859. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Haughwout Emporium's interior

The building stands on land originally bought by John Jacob Astor in 1802. After his death, Astor gave the land to one of his grandsons, Walter Langdon, Jr. His real estate advisor, Abner Ely, correctly predicted its location on Broadway and Broome would soon be part of an important commercial area and proposed a building on the lot years before Soho emerged as the city’s center of commerce in the years after the Civil War. While Soho was the place for upper-class New Yorkers to shop during the early 1800s, the area had deteriorated into New York City’s first red light district by the time the Haughwout building was built, with brothels mostly found along Houston and Mercer Streets.

Admirers checking out the offerings in the window of a Soho brothel. Illustration from National Police Gazette, 1880.

Haughwout’s success established a new commercial housewares strip near Broome Street. Its most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham. Dissatisfied with the mismatched and chipped White House china, Mary purchased a new set of serviceware with an American eagle design and wide mauve border. One can  imagine the husband-and-wife quarrel that ensued over the $3,000 bill, an amount Abraham thought was exorbitant.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Langdon’s estate sold the building in 1895 for $375,000. A number of textile and notions manufacturers and dealers occupied the building as the neighborhood shifted towards industry. In September of 1936, the Broadway Manufacturers Supply Company signed a lease for the entire building. By the 1950s, the textile industry had moved South and overseas; Soho became home to many printing plants and empty warehouses spaces. Rents were less than 50 cents per square foot and many spaces could be had for less than $100 per month (!). Around this time, Soho became a depressed commercial slum known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres”. Artists began to move into the neighborhood to take advantage of the cheap rents and spacious lofts flooded with sunlight.

The cornice of the Haughwout Building in 1967.

Haughwout Building interior entrance

Had Robert Moses had his way, there would have been a downtown ten-lane elevated highway connecting the East River with the Hudson River. Moses’ proposal included the leveling of fourteen blocks along Broome Street. 1,972 families and 804 businesses would have been displaced, and the Haughwout Building would not have been spared. Around this time, the Landmarks Preservation Commission began to fight for the Haughwout’s designation as a historical landmark. Thankfully, Moses’ plans were defeated.

Lower Manhattan could have looked like this if Robert Moses had gotten his way. Credit: Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority

Despite the victory, the Haughwout building was still in need of restoration. The building was sullied with dirt and grime, and many of Soho’s cast iron columns had become rusted.

The Haughwout Building ca. 1980s.

The Kaufman family, owners of the building since the 1930s, spent $175,000 in 1995 for Joseph Pell Lombardi to strip and repaint the building for its new commercial tenant, Staples. A cream color reminiscent of the building’s original hue was applied to the cast iron to cover up the black paint that had been used during its industrial days. Haughwout’s elevator, replaced in the 1890s, was removed in 2001 and a modern one took its place. The upper stories have been converted to loft space and clothing retailer Bebe moved in during 2011.

The Haughwout Building can be considered one of New York City’s finest examples of 19th-century cast-iron construction. Its presence through Soho’s phases of growth, depression, and rebirth illustrate its importance as a neighborhood landmark and residents’ willingness to preserve a piece of architectural history. If you walk inside today, it can be difficult to picture its past with its renovated interior, but walk across the street and gaze at the building; you can begin to imagine the sights and sounds of a more genteel era in New York City history.

Where Have All The Germans Gone?

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The Italians, Irish, and Jews are three of the most prominent immigrant groups in the history of late 19th-century New York City. Images of synagogues and churches, pushcarts and crowded tenements come to mind as walkers today stroll along the historic streets of the Lower East Side.

Hester Street in 1903.

These days it is much rarer to find traces of Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, a neighborhood that predated the mass migration of Eastern European immigrants during the late 1800s and once encompassed much of the Lower East Side and stretched northwards towards today’s East Village. If you look carefully, you will still find delightful hints of an era that has disappeared but left an indelible mark on New York City history.

The cornice of 7 Second Avenue and Houston Street in Manhattan.

The German immigrant community began to settle in Manhattan in the 1840s. By 1855, New York City had the third-largest population of Germans in the world after Berlin and Vienna. Most were educated and skilled in crafts; many bakers and cabinet makers at the time were of German descent. John Jacob Astor was born near Heidelberg before he built his multimillion dollar fur trade and real estate empire in America. John Roebling, the engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge, had his roots in Muhlhausen.

John Jacob Astor

John A. Roebling

The Puck Building on the corner of Houston and Lafayette was home to the J. Ottman Lithographing Company, who supplied printed illustrations for Puck Magazine, also in the same building. Puck was the first American political humor magazine published between 1876 and 1918 in both German and English. It was also the first magazine to employ full-color advertising and lithography but declined in readership as anti-German sentiment grew during World War I.

The Puck Building in 1895

An April 6, 1901 issue of Puck magazine

The Puck Building today with a newly-constructed REI sporting goods store on the ground floor.

A 6-feet gilded figure of Puck, a mischievous and mythological prankster, stands in the corner of the building.

Oswald Ottendorfer was the owner-editor of the Staats-Zeitung, once New York City’s largest German-American newspaper. As a young man he was a German revolutionary during the mid-1800s and was educated at the Universities of Vienna and Prague. He was fluent in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and several Slavic languages when he arrived in New York, but did not know English and, like many recently-arrived immigrants, was very poor when he started life in America.

Ottendorfer started out in the counting room of the Staats-Zeitung and took over editorial duties after the death of its proprietor, Jacob Uhl. He eventually married Uhl's widow, Anna.

Oswald and Anna's philanthropic contributions included funding for the Ottendorfer Free Library (left) and the Germany Dispensary (right), now the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library. The Dispensary eventually moved uptown and became Lenox Hill Hospital.

The Germania Bank building on Bowery and Spring looks abandoned, but the ENTIRE BUILDING of 72 rooms and 32,000 square feet was purchased by Jay Maisel in 1966 for $102,000 and his family still lives here today.

Yes, this building houses a family of three.

The Germania Bank Building in 1905. The Third Avenue El ran along the Bowery until it was torn down in the 1950s.

The Germania Bank was opened by a group of local business owners in 1869 when many of the businesses along the Bowery were owned by Germans. Christian Schwarzwaelder, the bank’s president, owned a furniture store on 9 East Broadway. Joseph Kunz, the vice-president, owned a brewery at 225 East Houston Street and lived at 167 Bowery. Other founding board members included a butcher, an iron safe and furniture manufacturer, and a cigar maker. In late 1917, the bank’s Board of Directors filed a petition to change its name to Commonwealth Bank in response to anti-German sentiment.

The former bank's office spaces now offer exhibition rooms for photographers and artists.

The copper elevator cage of the Germania Bank Building.

Jay Meisel's kitchen is in the area where staff cooked daily meals for Germania Bank officers.

The bank vault re-purposed as storage space for non-monetary objects.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Little Germany was home to 50,000 people. It was called Dutchtown by the Irish and Avenue B was the German Broadway. Avenue A had plenty of beer halls, oyster saloons, and groceries. Sports clubs, libraries, shooting clubs and theaters proliferated. Small factories and workshops operated in the neighborhood and access was through alleyways.

As more Eastern European immigrants moved into the neighborhood, Little Germany’s residents began to move north to Yorkville and across the river to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The German population severely declined with the General Slocum disaster of 1904. Over 1,300 women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church rented a steam-paddle boat to bring them to a Long Island picnic site to commemorate the ending of the school year.

A fire started in the storage compartment, and although there were life jackets and rowboats on board, they were in disrepair. An estimated 1,021 people died by fire or drowning, many of them members of Little Germany’s most distinguished families. The General Slocum disaster caused grieving family members to commit suicide and survivors to squabble over the distribution of a Relief Fund. Many fingers were pointed at people who were thought to have been responsible for the tragedy. The city would not see a greater tragedy until September 11th, 2001.

One of many funeral processions for General Slocum victims.

The German community was never able to fully recover from the tragedy and dispersed as they tried to forge new beginnings for themselves.

The German congregation moved uptown and the building now houses the Sixth Street Community Synagogue.

As German immigrants assimilated into the mainstream folds of “American” life, it became harder to hold onto the past traditions of everyday life, especially under the shadow of Nazism during World War II. Germans in New York City continue to be a people proud of their history and contributions to American society. Although it is more difficult to find tangible reminders of their distinguished past, their story is a familiar one of hard work and striving to fulfill their dreams in a different land.

Made in China

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It is hard NOT find something manufactured in China these days, but it wasn’t so long ago when there was virtually NO direct trade between the US and China because of tense Cold War relations. Chinatown stores in the US would go to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Canada to circumnavigate the need to directly import Chinese products. After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, a trade relationship was formed and Chinese products became all the rage.

Before that historic visit, a small group of Chinese and Taiwanese university students in the US got together and started a small retail store in Chinatown in 1971. It would be a Chinese-American department store of sorts. Ming Ye Chen, one of the owners and a Princeton PhD chemistry graduate, would frequently drive to Montreal or Toronto to pick up goods to be sold later at the store.

Pearl River Mart once occupied the second and third floors of the Oltarsh Building, the store's third location, on Canal Street.

In its original location on Catherine Street, “Chinese Native Products” carried soy sauce, little red Mao books, and other exotic tschotskes. Few newspapers would publish the store’s advertisements because of deep anti-Communist sentiment at the time. After Nixon’s visit to China, the store’s fortunes changed. More trade with China meant wider availability of imported products. This store would eventually become today’s Pearl River Mart, the first store in the US to import products from China.

Pearl River Mart's namesake, a river delta region in Southern China.

In its Canal Street location, Pearl River Mart seemed to have no logic in how the store was organized; slippers could be found next to fans, and Buddha statues next to tea cups. The store was dimly lit with fluorescent bulbs and smelled of sandalwood and preserved vegetables. Yet all that was part of the magic and mystery of Pearl River Mart.

Today Pearl River Mart is in a much more upscale Soho location. Shoppers won’t feel claustrophobic anymore as they wander around spacious displays of dishware and silk robes. Despite China’s reputation for cheaply-made goods of poor quality, the items at Pearl River Mart are not your 99-cent variety of Chinese goods. Although there are more tourists than Asian customers shopping here, it’s a good place to pick up a pair of old-school slippers (and my father refuses to wear anything else!). From its humble beginnings as a soy sauce peddler, Pearl River Mart has seen other Chinatown businesses come and go as the neighborhood has expanded and changed. Pearl River Mart, however, is here to stay.

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