Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Gun Hill Road

215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, 1940
(from the NYC property tax photos of 1940)

My computer always warns me not to capitalize the word “The” in “The Bronx,” but I know it’s wrong.  My father, a proud Bronx boy, always had the last word in the matter.  Thus, after receiving our childhood gifts, my brother and I addressed all thank you notes to our grandparents at 215 East Gun Hill Road, The Bronx, New York.

They had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Art Deco-ish building sometime during the mid-1930s. My father and his brother grew up there.

Building entrance, 2010s

Gun Hill Road has existed for more than 200 years.  It gets its name from a Revolutionary War skirmish in which the colonists hauled a cannon to the top of a hill and fired on the British.  That occurred in the middle of winter in 1777. 

Well over a century later, in 1898, New Yorkers voted to consolidate the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island) into the City of New York.  Consequently, vast swaths of land in The Bronx suddenly became valuable and made many a real estate fortune.

By 1905 there was subway service from Manhattan to The Bronx.  In 1917, Gun Hill Road became a stop on the IRT line. 

My grandparents’ neighborhood drew Catholics and Jews who had enough money to flee Manhattan, leaving behind the crowded streets and tenements.  They craved space, trees, and air.

Still, every day my grandfather took the subway back to Manhattan.  He was in the fur business, a trade he had brought with him from Lithuania in 1914. 

Until the 1980s, the fur business was big business.

In his Eastern European accent, he told a story about his family’s fur shop in Vilnius.  One day, the Cossacks rode up to the front of the store, dismounted their horses, and stormed inside. 

“Give us the furs!” they told his grandmother. 

“Never!” she cried. 

Again: “Give us the furs!” 


She flung her body across the minks that were piled on a table.  Then the soldiers shot her to death.      

My brother and I liked to hear this story and our grandfather seemed to like telling it to us.

At the time that my grandfather arrived in the United States, manufacturing was scattered all over Manhattan rather than consigned to one area.  You could find all kinds of industry from the southern tip of the island up to 59th Street and further north along the East Side.

But in 1916, the same year that urban reformers pushed through the nation’s first citywide zoning code, local businessmen formed The Committee to Save New York.  The idea was to consolidate industry below 32nd Street and west of Sixth Avenue.  This would have the effect of restoring uptown real estate values for businesses and homeowners. 

Surprisingly, everyone got on board.  Within a few years, most garment manufacturers had moved their factories and sweatshops to the new industrial district.  The fur shops, clustered around Seventh Avenue at 28th Street, became part of it, too.

Within that small area, my grandfather moved around a lot: 214 West 28th to 150 West 28th to 52 West 22nd to 67 West 23rd.  These buildings have all been demolished except for a four-story brownstone walk-up built in 1851 when Franklin Pierce was president.   

Since my grandfather created designs for fur shops and department stores, he did not need to have a vault and a showroom – just enough space for worktables and the tools of the trade.  He might have needed refrigeration for the furs. 

He did well until the Davy Crockett craze of the late 1950s, when he jumped in late and ended up with too many raccoon tails.

My grandparents circa 1945

When my grandfather came home to Gun Hill Road, he sat down in one of the easy chairs zipped into plastic, smoked a cigar, and watched television while my grandmother fussed around him.

On her left leg she had a large brown birthmark, so visible that a bureaucrat noted it in her naturalization papers.  The mark strongly resembled a stain in their bathroom sink that was caused by a long-running leaky faucet.  The child’s mind insisted that there had to be a connection between the stain and the birthmark, but what was it?

Occasionally my parents went away for the weekend and left my brother and me with our grandparents.  If the day was warm, we would all walk over to the “Oval,” a large park built during the New Deal on the site of an old reservoir.  We’d sit on a bench while bicycles and balls flew by.

Construction of the "Oval" during the 1930s

Back in the apartment, in a corner of the second bedroom, a battered wooden rack held a couple of old magazines.  One was an issue of Look with a big story about Jackie Kennedy, commemorating one year since the president’s assassination. 

I liked to sit on the wooden floor with the window half-open, the breeze moving the curtains, looking at the pictures. 

Even then, it surprised me that my grandmother held onto the worn magazine, for she spent a lot of time clearing closets and tossing out anything that was past its prime. 

She wanted everything to be new with no reminders of the old country in the apartment on Gun Hill Road.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

St. Augustine 1911

George Miller Brown in St. Augustine, 1911

George Miller Brown was a cautious, soft-spoken man whose long-anticipated trip from New York City to Florida would be his first voyage since he arrived at Castle Garden from Scotland in 1871.

An industrialist named Henry C. Flagler, who organized the Florida East Coast Railway Company, had made train travel possible from New York to Miami since 1896.

But George wanted to depart from the new Pennsylvania Station, an astonishing marble temple designed by McKim, Mead & White, which opened its bronze doors in November 1910.

There could be no grander way to go.  Construction had lasted seven years and the building, with its vast concourse and soaring staircases, occupied four city blocks between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Pennsylvania Excavation by George Bellows
(Brooklyn Museum)

In March 1911 George boarded a sleeper headed to St. Augustine.

He could afford the vacation, if that’s what it was.  He had done well thanks to advertising sales, a growing field to put it mildly.  George first worked for Alexander T. Stewart, who established the world’s first department store on Broadway in 1848.  It too was a marble palace, five stories high.

Then George leapt to the Gair Company, founded by a fellow Scot and Civil War hero to boot.  Robert Gair invented paper bags and corrugated boxes.  He became a millionaire and George Miller Brown – well, he made a small fortune.

Map of Henry C. Flagler's Florida East 
Coast Railway, circa 1911. A Key West 
extension had not yet been completed.

When I first saw the colorized photograph of George, I wondered if he went all the way to St. Augustine to pose with the oranges.  The image has such a deliberate quality. 

It’s possible that he wanted to see an air show presented by the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which would have been a pretty big deal.  Ever since an international air meet in Reims in 1909, Americans had flocked to the shows in Los Angeles, Boston and New York.

In St. Augustine, the pioneer aviators James J. Ward and John Alexander Douglas McCurdy flew their planes up and down the south beach and over Matanzas Bay. Sadly, Ward would crash five months after the exhibition, but McCurdy went on to play an important part in airplane manufacturing during World War I.

James J. Ward in the Curtiss Transcontinental Flyer 
just before his death in September 1911

The airshow surely interested George. But no one spent time in St. Augustine without paying a visit to Dr. Garnett’s Orange Grove. 

In 1911 when George traveled south, Florida’s main industries were real estate, cigars, oranges, and sponges.  Tourism was creeping up.

To capitalize on the visitors, during the early 1900s Dr. Reuben Garnett, a doctor from Missouri who moved to St. Augustine in 1882 in search of a Catholic community, opened an orange grove on his property.  He brought in ladders and encouraged visitors to pick the oranges and stroll along paths lined with palm trees and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

Another visitor to Dr. Garnett's Orange Grove poses 
for his picture by Lewis W. Blair, circa 1911

In 1910, in a masterstroke, he hired a photographer, Lewis W. Blair, who snapped souvenir pictures of the tourists.

And folks, George brought his photograph back to New York.

"A Spray of Orange Blossoms"
illustration from Florida East Coast Homeowner, 1911

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Rainy Day Window

 Looking south at the skyline's surprisingly pastel palette

photo by Claudia Keenan

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hitting His Stride

John Walker Harrington's interest in technology was evident in this
article which appeared in Scientific American during World War I.

John Walker Harrington, an enterprising reporter who blew into New York City during the heyday of yellow journalism in the 1890s, came equipped with a big ego. 

In college he’d torn up the competition in oratorical contests.  He composed sly poems about his friends, pushing caricatures to the limit.  His writing dominated the student newspaper and yearbook. 

Still, everyone seemed to like him.

At Harrington’s 1887 wedding, it reflected well on the groom to have as his best man Samuel Hopkins Adams, an up-and-coming muckraker who wrote for the esteemed magazine, McClure’s.  


Popular Science Monthly (1918)

It was Harrington’s good fortune to hit his stride during World War I when editors were looking for his particular brand of story – technological innovation and the expansion of government and industry:

Hudson Under-River Roadway: Chief Engineer Talks of Plans and Prospects for the 40-foot Tunnel with Three Lines of Traffic Each Way

Police Force Expands as its Duties Increase; Nerve Center of City at Headquarters Utilizes Motor Cars, Telephones, Radio and Special Street Signals

Yet there was a downside to the kind of in-depth reporting in which Harrington specialized, and he recognized it even as he celebrated his own success. 

As the public consumed ever greater amounts of information about how business and government worked, complacency gave way to questions.  Rumors spread.  Organizations, corporations and individuals lost absolute control of how they were perceived by the world.      

Dividends, reputations, and fortunes could be erased by a single newspaper article.

Popular Science Monthly (1928)

Consequently, Harrington began to pay attention to how his services might be used to balance negative publicity.  He designed a pitch and sent out dozens of letters, emphasizing his knowledge of the inner workings of the press with the implication that he could manipulate coverage.        

For example, in 1917, after the imperturbable New-York Historical Society confronted the unthinkable – an attack on its leadership by one of its own starchy members – Harrington wrote to the director suggesting that the museum might need some help holding onto its aristocratic image.  

New-York Historical Society flap:
New York Times; January 3, 1917

The Society declined Harrington's help, but he had great luck in the business sector.

By 1919, he was running a news service for the American Chemical Society, a trade organization eager to calm fears about toxic gases, the use of X-Rays and fertilizer, problems with the nation’s milk supply, and other public concerns.

Harrington had a particular interest and faith in science and scientists, so he was a natural to write about the benefits of industrial research.  His topics ranged from electrification of the railroads, to the extraction of all-important potash from rock deposits, to building cheaper, more comfortable shoes.  His articles were always upbeat.

Popular Science Monthly (1922)

Harrington did not invent the art of public relations. 

That honor went to Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a Princeton graduate and publicity expert.  Lee began reshaping the unsavory image of the Rockefeller family in 1914 after the Ludlow Massacre, when John D. Rockefeller Sr. ordered a Colorado militia to break a strike by the United Mine Workers. Nineteen men, women, and children were killed.  

Harrington flourished in the world of flackdom, which would become a derogatory term for PR.  He also continued to write for himself.

In July 1924 American Magazine, a popular interest monthly, published a story by Harrington: “His Most Valuable Contract was the One He Didn’t Get.”

Here’s the teaser: “By speaking well of a rival firm, James G. White, when he was a young engineer, lost a big contract but gained some bigger friends.”

And here’s the first line: “Two men stood facing each other in the office of an Omaha smelting plant.”

No one sets a scene like that anymore.

"Chemistry's Greatest Rally"
Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry

*John Walker Harrington died in Connecticut in 1952.
See part 1 - 10/9/10.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The School Superintendent Who Needed a Home

Eastchester High School, 1940s

Needless to say, the members of the board of education were shocked to discover that the superintendent and his wife and children had been living in the local high school. 

At the end of each day when the teachers, students, and coaches were gone, when the drama and orchestra rehearsals had wound down and the custodians had banished the last banana peel and crumpled math quiz – the superintendent would make his way to the wing of the school where vocational classes were held.

Warily he would usher his family into the rooms occupied by the school’s home economics department.  There was a bedroom and bathroom, kitchen and living room.  Nothing fancy, but furnished and well-lit. 

Girls learning homemaking in school, 1930s

Good enough for the family to relax, prepare and eat meals, complete homework, wash up, and sleep through the night. 

It was the fall of 1945 in Eastchester, N.Y., a town in the New York City suburbs that started life as a seventeenth-century English settlement.  Within its five square miles, the direst housing shortage in the nation’s history had come home to roost.

Worst of all was that the returning veterans had to scramble for places to live.  “Dog-tired soldiers can’t come home to Detroit.  There aren’t any houses,” according to a headline in the Detroit Free Press.

A classified ad in the Omaha World-Herald offered “Big ice box, 7 x 17 feet inside.  Could be fixed to live in like a trailer.”

The housing famine, as some called it, preceded the postwar boom in housing and roads. Out on Long Island, Levittown’s 17,000 houses would go up in a record four years, but the farmers who sold their land to the builder were harvesting their potatoes until construction started in 1947. 

It was estimated that the nation would need 12.6 million new dwelling units during the first decade after the war.

But major shortages stood in the way of a quick end to the housing crisis: a shortage of labor and a shortage of supplies, their destinies entwined.  

From Architectural Forum (1945)

While the Army had released large amounts of lumber to industry, the timber remained standing in the woods of northern California, Oregon, Washington State, and Idaho.  The reason was that 60,000 American Federation of Labor (AFL) members had struck in nearly 500 lumber camps and logging mills, asking for $1.10 / hour.  No one held out hope for quick mediation.  

Labor was missing across all manufacturing sectors.  Big American Radiator & Standard Sanitary Corp., which formerly turned out 3,000 bathtubs per day, was now fortunate to produce 3,000 tubs per week.  Steel production had slowed, with capacity output not expected until spring of 1946.

Keg of nails?  How quaint. 

As housing starts stalled, veterans and labor organizations looked reflexively to the government for a solution to the crisis. 

Three senators – Robert F. Wagner of New York, Robert H. Taft of Ohio, and Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana – started work on a bill that would “provide a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”  This bill also mandated the clearing of urban slum areas to create low-rent housing, which created new problems related to the displacement of poor people.

  Georgia, 1945: black families displaced by
postwar construction lived in tent cities 

that resembled Eastern European shtetls. 

Meanwhile, private industry recognized that the time had come to reject price controls and set its own production goals or else submit to interminable government regulation.

Indeed, after Congress finally declared a national housing emergency in May 1946, President Truman took steps to free builders from government constraints on supplies and construction.    

But he met fierce opposition from veterans’ groups who opposed the government’s removal of priorities, subsidies and market guarantees.  They worried that veterans would be unable to afford the new housing.  The stalemate lasted several years.

"A home from a Quonset Hut" appeared in
House Beautiful (September 1945).

Back in Eastchester, Superintendent Ward I. Miller, who had moved his family into the high school, was not a veteran.  Perhaps he wanted to save money, or his salary did not cover housing costs, or he could not find just the right home.  Which it was remains unknown. 

Despite their shock, the school trustees did not fire Miller.  He stayed on until 1946 and then became superintendent of schools in Wilmington, Delaware. 

One must admire Miller’s clever choice of a place to live. 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, as student enrollment soared, U. S. public school administrators accepted the charge to teach homemaking.  School buildings were constructed or retrofitted with small apartments where girls learned to cook and clean under the tutelage of home economics instructors who knew all the best recipes for gruel.   

Since the home economics curriculum modeled hygiene, diet and family life, it fit neatly with the overarching goal of Americanizing immigrants.  In Eastchester, such an effort would have been directed at the daughters of Italian immigrants who began moving to the town during the mid-1920s.   

Surely the Millers left the apartment in immaculate condition when they tiptoed out each morning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On the Fly with John Walker Harrington

"Tobacco Greatest Solace of War Worn Fighting Man"
One of Harrington's first big stories appeared in The Sun in 1917.

Everything grabbed the interest of John Walker Harrington, one of America’s forgotten journalists.

            “Kaiser’s Heir, Prince of Failure: The Sad Military Career of Frederick William, Who Stops Losing Battles Only Long Enough to Accept Decorations and Study the Strategic Value of Frogs”

             “Trotsky Was a Starving Idealist: Bolshevik Leader Left Impress on Thousands in The Bronx by Speeches and Writings”

            “Motor Street Traffic is Big Civic Problem: Wider Highways and Elevated Roadways Recognized as Essential Future Needs”

A quintessential reporter of the early twentieth century, John Walker Harrington was not as well-known as the crusaders Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell nor the daring investigative journalist Nellie Bly.  But Harrington was a prolific and expressive prose stylist.

His news and features appeared regularly in The New York Times, New York Herald, New York Tribune, Saturday Evening Post, Scientific American, Popular Science Monthly, Bankers Magazine, McClure’s, and the American Magazine.

Newspaper editors from Kansas to Alabama; Illinois to North Carolina; Nebraska to New Jersey faithfully pulled his stories from the wire services.

Given Harrington’s lifelong passion for science and technology, and his enthusiasm about the efficiency and productivity that lay in the future, it’s a neat juxtaposition that his earliest published pieces included sentimental stories for kids.  

Typical newspaper puzzle for children, 1890s 

These appeared, amidst comics and puzzles, in the children’s sections that were part of most Sunday newspapers once upon a time.

Born in 1869 in Missouri, Harrington grew up a child of the Upper Midwest.  He spent the first eighteen years of his life in Logan, Ohio, where his father was a pharmacist and his grandfather a bank president.  As companions he had two precocious brothers, Marshall and Herbert, and a younger sister, Evaline.

Logan was a bustling city on the banks of the Hocking River in the southeast part of the state.  It was the first place that Harrington took in the past and imagined the destiny of the United States.  

Main Street, Logan, Ohio, 1890s

During the 1880s, the boy observed the decline of the Hocking Canal – a branch of the Ohio and Erie Canal – once part of a major transportation system that crisscrossed the state. 

He recognized the essential importance of the railroad, for the Hocking Valley Railway passed through Logan on its way from Athens to Toledo.  Later it became part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.

And he was fascinated by local industry: grist and sawmills, iron and steel, the manufacture of clay products.

Intricacies of the Hocking Valley Railway

Harrington probably started writing when he was quite young.  At the College of Wooster, he edited the student paper, graduated in 1890 and stayed on to earn a Master of Philosophy. *  Then he became a registered pharmacist and briefly went into business alongside his father.

But his heart’s desire was to be a writer – fiction or the news, it did not matter.

By 1895 Harrington had moved to New York City.  There he began to see his byline with satisfying regularity.   

His first story, “Dove Rock Day,” was about Gilded Age summer society at Lake George in upstate New York, where an actress saves the life of a newspaper reporter who is spying on her.  His second story, “An Interrupted Mission” tells of a former slave who escapes being lynched by his two white partners during the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1898 Harrington married May Lewis, daughter of a former district attorney.  A baby, Ruth, came along in 1899.

In 1900, Harrington published a collection
of his stories for children. 

Perhaps to amuse Ruth, Harrington turned to children’s stories.  First came “The Apple-Butter Cat,” which starred a church mouse from India and characters named Ugly Dog, Nimble Grasshopper, Leap Frog, and Jumping Kangaroo.  There followed “Hoot Owl Invents Golf”; “The Gray Mouse and the Fat Mouse, a Quaint Conceit”; “When the Goat was King, a Mechanical Toy Melodrama,” and “The Gringe and the Spitfire.”

In 1902 “The Man at Old Tom’s,” his haunting (adult) story about a suicide, was reprinted widely.  Right there in the first paragraph, he fully immersed himself in the main character:

Even the chops looked lonely at Old Tom’s on that December night.  Business had delayed me at the office, for Wall Street was on the verge of one of its frequent crises.  I had slipped out for dinner at the old chop-house.  The exertions of the day and the nervous strain under which I had been placed made me singularly depressed.

Not until 1916 did Harrington hit it big with a full-page story in The Sun.  “Tigers of the Sea” was about sharks preying on fishermen and bathers off the New Jersey Coast.

Now he was off and running.

Illustration for one of Harrington's
newspaper stories for children 

*The College of Wooster is located in Wooster, Ohio.
See part 2, 11/27/19.

To be continued.