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FOR ONE REASON AND ANOTHER, I found myself in Midtown Manhattan three times last week and — to my surprise — enjoyed it. Even when I lived in Manhattan eons ago, I was a downtown person, rarely venturing north of 14th Street. After I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’70s, my visits to “the city” grew more and more infrequent. Weeks could go by without my having any need or desire to cross the river (especially after Brooklyn got a few shoe stores).
Yet, there I recently was, three days in succession, suddenly feeling my eyes had been opened to something immeasurably rich, complex, and vibrant I hadn’t noticed before. I found myself searching for signs of vintage Manhattan, for remnants of the pre-skyscraper era, dwarfed now by towering neighbors but still standing proud, like the little house, top, in Virginia Lee Burton’s children’s book of the same name, that got gradually engulfed by new construction.
On Day 1, I had a doctor’s appointment in the East 30’s. I noticed a brick carriage house I had never seen before, below, and wondered how long old tenements with fire escapes, cornices, and storefronts at street level could possibly remain in place, unprotected by Landmarks and subject to the relentless march of commercial development.
There are some gorgeous intact rows of 19th century townhouses on the side streets of Murray Hill, but I also noted surviving row houses here and there on the avenues. The grimy pair on Lexington, right, have that forlorn look of Burton’s little house, but you know they won’t be moved to the country (as the fictional cottage eventually was) but likely torn down when the economy commands it.
I took pleasure in noting old one-story structures like the two, below. By sheer coincidence, I ended up having dinner with a friend two nights later in the Art Deco building on the right, which now houses Tokyo, one of the first sushi restaurants in New York when it opened in 1969. A welcome discovery, it will become my go-to sushi place in midtown from now on, with mostly Japanese patrons and bartenders in kimono who have clearly been there from the first.
The following day, I met a friend for lunch at Schnipper’s on East 23rd Street, but our timing was off. It’s fine when quiet — a cafeteria-style burger place with a self-consciously retro vibe — but this time, it was a madhouse. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the din and repaired instead to Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue for authentic, scrumptious, and well-priced food. But I was still seeking signs of Olde New York, and later — for future reference when in need of a quiet, unpopular lunchtime spot — walked around in search of a place I had happened into one day last year, whose name I couldn’t remember. It was decidedly old-fashioned; I was one of the only customers, and I ate something like mushrooms on toast.
I found it under scaffolding on East 28th Street: a British pub called The Churchill, above, with a menu of fish’n’chips, shepherd’s pie, mushy peas, and so on. It was even quieter than I remembered; there wasn’t a soul in the place. It probably does better at happy hour.
The following day, early for a dinner date, I emerged from the B train at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking forward to a walk through Bryant Park. Below, my favorite warm-weather outdoor lunch spot, The Bryant Park Cafe, shuttered for the season.
I found the park itself transformed for the holiday season. Instead of the quietude and fall plantings I expected, there was a tacky Christmas fair, with merchandise a half-step up from that on Canal Street, set up in booths around a temporary ice skating rink, below, over the expansive lawn. It was lively and possibly even “magical,” there in the shadow of the New York Public Library. But the music (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York’) was hokey and I wondered when ice skating in the heart of Manhattan’s business district had become so popular that the nearby Wollman Rink in Central Park and the one at Rockfeller Center weren’t enough. (The Bryant Park rink is free; skate rentals $14.)
Then, naturally, I stepped into the library and spent the next hour leisurely enjoying its always-worthwhile exhibits. The current “Lunch Hour NYC,” open until February, is great fun. I actually learned a lot, including the origin of the term “lunch” (from the Spanish lonja, meaning a chunk or piece you can hold in your hand). There are etchings of Victorian-era Wall Streeters in top hats and derbies wolfing it down at an early lunch counter, and menus from diners to Delmonico’s. I watched all five film clips of scenes set in Horn & Hardart’s automats. and then signed up for my first New York Public Library card in decades (the last one didn’t even have a bar code).
My friend and I intended to meet up at one of New York City’s genuine hidden treasures: The Campbell Apartment, above, on the mezzanine at the back of Grand Central Station, a coffered-ceiling, intricately painted relic of the late 19th century, when railroad barons had their whiskey and cigars there. It being Friday night at 6:30, we were unable even to enter, so thick were the crowds. That’s when Barbara suggested Tokyo, where we sat for two hours at the bar sampling odd dishes that both the menu and waitress stated were “not recommended for first time.” But as we are old sushi hands, we loved them, as we did the Japanese rice vodka.
Altogether satisfied with my Manhattan experience, I’ve decided I am not bored with Manhattan. There’s still a lot for me to discover. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson about London, that must mean I am not, after all (as I’ve sometimes feared), bored with life.
I STILL DON’T HAVE A CAMERA. I was all set to go to B&H this 93-degree morning (it’s the New York City camera store for professionals and regular folk alike). Turns out they were closed for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
Radio Row on Cortlandt Street, near the World Trade Center site
Meanwhile, in the course of researching “best cameras for bloggers,” I read a New York Times article that led me to A Continuous Lean, a blog “about things” by Michael Williams. A few weeks back, he posted a group of Berenice Abbott’s black-and-white photographs from a Depression-era series called “Changing New York,” funded by the Federal Art Project.
It’s invaluable documentation, to be sure, and it’s an almost unbearably nostalgic look back at New York City in the days when the Empire State Building was new and, despite the ‘homeless huts’ (on Mercer Street, yet!), almost anything seemed possible.
Oyster houses under the Manhattan Bridge (and I guess those are oyster shells!)
The collection is in the New York Public Library archives, and can be seen online in its entirety. Some can be viewed, with descriptions, as a slideshow on Flickr. Many of Abbott’s images are famous, like the ones showing slanting rays of light penetrating the dusty interior of the old Penn Station, and the window of a bakery in Little Italy with loaves of still-warm bread fogging up the glass. But beyond the iconic, much-published images, there are many that were new to me (when I looked through all 300+ of them), and revelatory.
Maybe I relate to Abbott because she didn’t take many pictures of people. She loved the monumentality of skyscrapers, the shadows cast by bridges and elevated train tracks, the etched facades of a row of brownstones late in the day, the jumble of merchandise in store windows, the brashness of advertising signs.
I suddenly thought, hey, I want those on my blog, too! Who needs a camera?
Fifth Avenue and 44th Street
Hester Street, Lower East Side
Talman Street (which no longer exists) between Jay and Bridge Streets, Brooklyn
Read about Abbott’s Bohemian life below:
Photographer Berenice Abbott proposed Changing New York, her grand project to document New York City, to the Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935. The FAP was a Depression-era government program for unemployed artists and workers in related fields such as advertising, graphic design, illustration, photofinishing, and publishing. A changing staff of more than a dozen participated as darkroom printers, field assistants, researchers and clerks on this and other photographic efforts. Abbott’s efforts resulted in a book in 1939, in advance of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow NY, with 97 illustrations and text by Abbott’s fellow WPA employee (and life companion), art critic Elizabeth McCausland (1899-1965). At the project’s conclusion, the FAP distributed complete sets of Abbott’s final 302 images to high schools, libraries and other public institutions in the metropolitan area, plus the State Library in Albany. Throughout the project, exhibitions of the work took place in New York and elsewhere. After decades of lapse, the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965 revived the FAP’s ideals .
Abbott was born and raised in Ohio where she endured an erratic family life. In 1918, after two semesters at Ohio State University, she left to join friends associated with the Provincetown Players, in Greenwich Village. There she met Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and other influential modernists. From 1919-1921, while studying sculpture, Abbott supported herself as an artist’s model, posing for photographers Nikolas Muray and Man Ray. She also met Marcel Duchamp, and participated in Dadaist publications.
Abbott moved to Paris in 1921, where she continued to study sculpture (and in Berlin), and to support herself by modeling. During 1923-1926, she worked as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant (he had also relocated to Paris) and tried portrait photography at his suggestion. Abbott’s first solo exhibition, in 1926, launched her career. In 1928 she rescued and began to promote Eugène Atget’s photographic work, calling his thirty years of Parisian streetscapes and related studies “realism unadorned. “
In 1929 Abbott took a new artistic direction to tackle the scope (if not the scale) of Atget’s achievement in New York City. During 1929-38, she photographed urban material culture and the built environment of New York, documenting the old before it was torn down and recording new construction. From 1934-58, she also taught photography at the New School. During 1935-39, Abbott worked as a “supervisor” for the Federal Art Project to create Changing New York (her free-lance work and New School teaching commitment made her ineligible for unemployment relief) .
From 1939-60, Abbott photographed scientific subjects, concluding with her notable illustrations for the MIT-originated Physical Sciences Study Committee’s revolutionary high school physics course. In 1954, she photographed along the length of US 1; the work never found a publisher. In 1968, Abbott sold the Atget archive to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and moved permanently to her home in central Maine (bought in 1956 and restored over several decades) .
1970 saw Abbott’s first major retrospective exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art. Her first retrospective portfolio appeared in 1976, and she received the International Center of Photography’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. She died at home in Monson, Maine in December 1991 .