Porches, Points and Poverty: How Other Halves Lived
Less faded print:
This scene, from the infamous “Five Points” slum of the 1800’s, I first saw in some article 30 years ago on Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives was so intriguing, because it was being shown as an example of old “tenement” life, but it doesn’t look like a NYC tenement at all. The wooden staircase and deck and the windows made me think right away of New England, but even there the windows don’t look quite like that. (I can also see in this wider picture that it’s not a full “porch” like in New England or Chicago; just a landing for the second floor exit).
I had never heard of Five Points, and don’t even remember that article mentioning a specific locale.
So I wondered where this was, or even if it really was New York. Maybe it was really Boston or somewhere else in New England. I didn’t even know when it was. Some old black & white picture like that made me think of the 1930’s, like the old Little Rascals films.
It’s actually dated “c1890”, and I don’t see it in the online copies of How the Other Half Lives, so it must have been from some other project of Riis.
I deduce it was an industrial building. That’s where you usually see windows like that. I guess it reminded me of New England because of the old Kings Department store/Indian Motorcycle plant hull in Springfield (and the front of my grandmother’s townhouse had something similar for decorative purposes under the little wooden gable over the doorway).
But come to think of it, there are also “loft” style buildings in Brooklyn that look like that. (The old Wythe Confectionery, which has been turned into loft apartments, is an example, though the windows are bigger).
The vaults under the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan side are enclosed by walls with (bricked up) windows and doors that look like that. There’s even a really old little building with windows somewhat like that a block from me. The first floor is some sort of garage, like an auto shop. You could see where the second floor in the front used to have a doorway. Should throw in the Minetta Garage on W3rd St. in the Village as well.
Shouldn’t forget, the city’s new/current “Five Pointz”, a warehouse in LIC they want to tear down for another modern condo (except that the windows are all double, though).
Those seem really old, so it really had me at one point thinking that was a common universal design (both industrial and residential) in the city, that must have been mostly demolished in favor of the oldest buildings we see today. But there are many buildings around from even before that picture.
Edit: I find that there is a name for this style: Victorian Institutional. I got this term from a page describing another similar building not too far from me I had always noticed, the 1870-1872 (with additions in 1888 and 1938) former Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged; now Bushwick Leader’s High School for Academic Excellence (http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2013/03/building-of-the-day-797-bushwick-avenue the dormers on top would represent the “Neo-Colonial influence”, which is a normally residential style we will also see a lot in old Five Points).
So this confirms that this was an industrial design in that century.
While “segmental arches” (two or three rows of bricks in a curved configuration to hold up the wall above the window) became almost universal on brick building rear masonry (residential and industrial alike) in the early 20th century, I’m seeing from these old pictures from the 19th century, that most of those really old brick residences from back then used lintels (a one piece concrete block, sometimes sculptured) instead of arches. [More in comment below].
The arches on prewar residential windows don’t have such a high “rise” or “camber” (i.e. it’s not as “curved”, unless part of frontal decorative masonry.
The windows are also usually more taller than they are wide, though there are some from the 19th century that are about this size. But these always have lintels, again.
The building on the left is a somewhat more typical looking really old residence, with more normally shaped windows, and a fire escape even. (That dark entrance in the very corner with the protruding steps the woman is posing on does look a bit odd. Especially the shutter-like door in the middle of the flight of stairs, and that it’s so up against the other building with no space in between. However, there is a bricked up door to the left of the opening, in line with window above it, which looks more typical for where the doorway would have been. The slabs of stone the four boys are posing on looks like it was a collapsed former stoop to that door. So that could have still been a converted non-residential building as well, or perhaps a conversion the other way, from residential to industrial, then made a part of the other building, and now back to residential).
In LA, plain rear windows do look more like the building on the right, but then they are still bigger, usually double, and the walls are thicker, for the earthquakes).
So if this was residential (as evidenced by all the clothes lines), it was likely converted. They did that a lot back then in the area this was in. (The boarded up first floor window is another evidence of this). These were called “rookeries”.
When I first saw the picture, Billy Joel’s “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” was frequently playing on the radio (Summer ’84), and its sad sound (with the simple piano melody and weepy harmonica solo) fit the image of the picture (even though it’s a love song). So that’s what comes to mind when I see this picture.
It’s a really haunting picture, especially the poorer quality print with the blurry black and gray shadowing on top seen here (and this one shows a bit more to the right). Dirty whitewashed walls, and most importantly, impoverished looking people, mostly women and children, sitting on filthy, probably muddy doorsteps. (Closeup, here). Other Riis pictures, such as the more well known “Bandit’s Roost” and “Bottle Alley” scenes from the nearby “Mulberry Bend” block (the most infamous part of the area), don’t even look this somber and depressing.
When putting together this article, I showed it to my wife, and she seemed skeeved for some reason and doesn’t even want to take a better look at it (she was looking from across the room, and didn’t have her glasses on, so only saw a blurry glimpse of it).
Eight years later, turns out I would be working about 100-200 feet from the site, in the NY County Clerk’s Office basement offices at 60 Centre St, though at that point I still never had any idea of where it was, or even if it was really in the city at all.
I was still working there 15 years ago (’99) when I saw another picture of the building in an article (it was reverse of this one), and this article said it was Baxter Street, which is right behind the court building. Not knowing where on Baxter, and wondering if it could still be there, I took a lunch break and walked the length of Baxter. The closest thing I could find that looked like that was №118-122, a few blocks up on the other side of Canal. Nah; probably not. (No sign of there once being a doorway on the second floor).
The grimy looking really old looking triangle shaped building where Walker merges into Canal, at Baxter was actually the first thing to come to mind, but that certainly wasn’t it. Arches used raised bricks. (Looking at Street View, they really painted it over nice. Didn’t realize that).
Little did I know I likely passed right through the site as soon as I exited the back ramp of the courthouse (which leads right to what’s left of the Five Points intersection at the center of the whole area!) http://www.flickr.com/photos/wallyg/331441085
This was a junction of three streets, Anthony, Orange and Cross St.
Anthony which ended there from the west, in 1854 became Worth, and in 1859 was cut further through the original grid to Chatham Square (making the corner six points afterward), Orange was renamed Baxter (1854), and Cross (Park St. after 1854) was de-mapped for 60 Centre west of the intersection, and later became a walkway through the park that replaced the Bend block between the intersection and Mulberry, and the remaining block, (between Mulberry and Mott St). was even more recently renamed Mosco Street. (Which I would sometimes cut up the steep hill to go to an arcade called “Chinatown Fair”, one of the last neighborhood video arcades. Still usually go there during the San Gennaro festival. The festival BTW, years ago used to come down around the bend to Worth, but now stops at Canal).
Now, the link (from the MCNY collection copy) goes as far as to gives us an actual address: 24 Baxter, which places it right near where the new federal courthouse is, behind the old state/county court I worked in. The space was a park and parking lot before the courthouse was built (right as the last government shutdown occurred). I remember in ’83, when we all went to San Gennaro (which is what got me into the festival afterward to the present), Dad having parked in the lot (he worked in 80 Centre, so probably parked there all the time anyway), and going back to the car afterward, I looking toward 60 Centre, and it was very humid and the evening was not even cooling it, and Dad saying the heat “hangs” in the city, because of all the people.
I would have no idea less than a year later that I was standing right on the site of that picture!
This entry was supposed to be about the wooden “back porches” that are so ubiquitous on pre-war multi-story apartment buildings in other cities like Springfield, MA and Chicago, but are so absent in NYC except on old pictures like this. Then it became more about 24 Baxter, and from there, about Five Points in general. [Split off into comments]. So now, to get back to the original point.
While 24 Baxter wasn’t really a full porch, and again, was possibly not even residential, Riis did capture some other buildings in the area that did resemble those other cities.
These technically are probably not really “back” porches, as these buildings seem to be all “rear tenements”, which were buildings squeezed into the back yards of other buildings (like what I saw on Mulberry. This seems to be what the 24 Baxter building was also). So those may have been the primary (“front”) egress of the buildings, even though they still led to back yards. (Hence all the clothes lines).
Since Mott was never cleared like parts of Baxter and Mulberry, I wonder if this one could have survived. (When peeking behind the building on Mulberry, having heard about the rear tenements, I mulled the possibility and surprise of encountering a view like this). Even if it did, the woodwork probably would have been removed, since I once read that NYC at some point banned “wooden fire escapes”. (And it mandated the current steel fire escapes in 1861).
The American metropolis, from Knickerbocker days to the present time, Volume 3 By Frank Moss (1897) p.293 has a similar one at “Alley of house; corner of Watts and Sullivan Streets”. (http://books.google.com/books?id=LfYLAAAAYAAJ)
“Tenement Life in New York – Rag-pickers Court, Mulberry Street” Harper’s Weekly, April 5, 1879 Drawn by William A Rogers, Collection of Maggie Land Blanck
This too was in the “bend” block replaced by the park.
Two different sets of “Rheinlander” rows in the West Village, one with metal balconies and the other, with wooden ones: http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/rhinelander-row/
This one says “New York”, but has me asking “which city” [i.e. in the state]. I see the ones on the left have been outfitted with fire escapes, but it still looks like somewhere outside of NYC. I would say New England; it looks like those three story box frame tenements I have found are called “triple deckers”. But the one story brick building in front uses American Bond (discussed in comments), which is rare in old New England buildings. Though Boston has them a bit [Edit: this is “Lewis W. Hine
Playground in mill village 1909”, and is apparently Boston: http://www.davidrumsey.com/amica/amico552779-62531.html There is a place called “Mill village” in nearby Sudbury]).
This page http://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/history-final-exam-photos/deck/3074001 says “tenement homes in NYC. Jacob Riis put these photos in his book ‘how the other half lives'”
Yet I find it is also apart of this book on Chicago (where this became common into the present):
Here BTW is an article I recently found on Chicago, addressing these porches:
Chicago’s flammable fire escapes
The things to me always looked just plain ugly, creating dark shadows, and were creaky to walk on. (In addition to adding a heavier “fire load” in firefighting lingo).
I imagine, to answer my age old question, these were just relics of 19th century architecture that lingered in some regions, but happened to be banned in NYC. The above article, comparing with NYC, points out that we don’t have the alleyways (and thus the space) that Chicago does. (Back then, we had the alleyways, and even though there wasn’t much space, we crammed stuff into them anyway, until the building codes became stricter).
So we instead went with steel climb-out fire escapes, which are much smaller. (Then you have places like Norfolk, Richmond and even New Haven and some other places, where they are big walk-out structures like the wooden ones, yet are usually made of steel).
Chicago stuck with wood (despite their “bad luck” with fire) because it was cheaper, and they were treated to not burn quickly anyway, plus, simple “tradition” (they were a “Center for the lumber industry”). I imagine smaller cities which weren’t as congested did not see fire as much as a danger as New York did, and plus, of course, also had the space.
Two frame houses in the city that still have these: 2875 W17th St. Coney Island (screened 3 story back porch with separate stairways for both sides of building visible from Stillwell terminal though may have gotten a bit harder to see with all the new construction in the area), and 1739 Zerega Ave. Bronx; back of building right on Castle Hill Ave. which Zerega merges with at that point. Looks like it was lifted right out of New England).
There are some two story brick bow-front rowhouses close by in Ridgewood (Catalpa/Fresh Pond area) that have them, though without stairs. Some were removed.
I became familiar with them from Springfield, and with a grandmother who was hard to get along with a lot of times, plus the antiquated apartments, it all made quite an impression on my young Aspie mind. (Especially the first one she lived in in my lifetime, in the 1874 “Northern Heights” row in South End; with stuff I never saw at home or my other grandmother’s or godmother or any other house I went to in NY, even in really old buildings: large built-in gas room heaters and kitchen stove with big pipes going into the wall, open “window” between kitchen and bathroom, how rickety those porch stairs were, the mud in the alleyway in the back, plus burned out buildings all around; this BTW was thankfully all renovated in the late 70’s, including new steel back stairways and paved driveway).
Even though this was simply typical old-time living (I guess like having gone back 100 years), to me it was like another planet. I guess this impact a couple of long hot miserable summers there as a child had on me is why I’m “connecting” with those Five Points pictures so much (even though Northern Heights was still not nearly as bad. That was I guess the closest I came to that, coming from a 1920’s former luxury apartment complex in Brooklyn, with marble halls (including the stairs), elevators, central heating, modern bathrooms, paved backyards we had cookouts in, and fire escapes we generally didn’t use).
And so hard to believe all that squalor was right behind where I worked for nine years. It was like another side of the city I had never seen, being so much different than even the familiar “ghettoes” (South Bronx, Harlem, Bed-Stuy) I knew about 100 years later.