Saturday, January 29, 2011

Behind the veil (1 of 3)

Last week's thoughts on old houses have brought Second Avenue to mind again. The Avenue from Houston to East 14th Street today styles itself a part of the East Village. When I was a boy, however, it was part of the Lower East Side. And if ever there was a dismal and forgotten part of town, it was the Lower East Side. This stretch of the Avenue was developed as an elite residential quarter in the late 1820s and 1830s, abandoned by fashion after the Civil War, and invaded by tenements and immigrants at century's end. An unlikely renaissance occurred in the early 20th Century when urban decay on the Bowery led to a wholesale relocation of New York's flourishing Yiddish theatre to this downtrodden precinct of vanished New York bluebloods. Upwards of 1100 legitimate Yiddish speaking theatrical productions were staged here every year, attended by an estimated two million persons. Besides theatres, cafes, music emporiums, costume shops, and tenements housing the likes of Emma Goldman and the Gershwin boys, Second AVenue was home to the famous Second Avenue Delicatessen, with a Yiddish Walk of the Stars embedded in the sidewalk out front.

This is the west side of Second Avenue looking south from 10th Street. Unless you're impecunious and/or young and/or hang out in East Village bars, you might consider this a pretty anonymous - maybe even depressing - example of the urban streetscape. Look more closely, however, and you'll see a block of formerly fine houses interspersed with much later - 1890s to circa 1910 - tenements and apartment buildings.

Here's the east side of the Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, showing what's actually an intact row of houses. Good lord, look what's happened to them.

See the sliver of house next to the Dentist's awning in the image above? This is a close-up of its surviving front door. The elegant engaged columns are highly characteristic of the Greek Revival style of the 1830s.

This poor old house has been "updated" by entombing the facade in corrugated metal sheets. Lots were wider when Second Avenue was developed - sometimes 25 to 30 feet wide. This house might have had a floor added to it. If so, it would originally have looked very much like the house illustrated below.

Picture this house, located on the east side of the Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, with its elegant Greek door surround in unpainted brownstone, dark shutters on the windows, floor length parlor windows with iron balconies, a beautiful iron fence along the sidewalk, and possibly (though not necessarily) an attic pierced with delicate dormer windows, and you've got a pretty accurate idea of what the corrugated house across the street once looked like.


  1. I didn't realise that 1100 legitimate Yiddish speaking theatrical productions were staged here every year, but I am not surprised that they were attended by two million persons. Yiddish speakers were desperate for their family and cultural life back home in Russia or Poland. They would have used the family's food money, if necessary, to pay for a meaningful connection with home.

    That people had to live in cruddy tenements and apartment buildings was unfortunate. But freedom from pogroms made it absolutely worthwhile. When my family came to Australia, they didn't have to suffer from cruddy tenements, but then they didn't have the joy of yiddish theatre either. Theatre would have been much loved here, I think.

  2. I can imagine the avenue...
    It is amazing how sturdily they survive!

  3. This has been very interesting as I did not really realize that Second Avenue had been a stylish residential street. I should have thought more about it, since there are vestiges of fashionable houses to the east. And of course I had seen the remains of the theatres. Thanks for another informative post.