Saturday, 28 February 2009


Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery at 137, East Houston Street, between 1st & 2nd Avenues, is a bakery that has been selling knishes on the Lower East Side for nearly a century. As the area has changed over the decades and many of its Jewish residents have moved on, Yonah Shimmel's is one of the few distinctly Jewish businesses and restaurants that remains as a fixture of this largely-departed culture and cuisine. About 1890, Yonah Shimmel used a pushcart to start his knish bakery, joined later by his cousin Joseph Berger. When Yonah left the business, Berger assumed control of the bakery and moved it to its current premises in 1910.

It is as much a landmark as an eatery and has frequently been an artist's subject - a portrait of the premises by Hedy Pagremanski is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York. It has also assumed an important status in NYC politics as it is said that "No New York politician in the last 50 years has been elected to office without having at least one photograph showing him on the Lower East Side with a Yonah Shimmel's knish in his face."
The restaurant within the bakery offers a number of varieties of knishes in addition to other kinds of Eastern European food such as borscht, and runs a brisk takeout business.

Okay, but what is a knish (above) I hear you ask? A knish (with the "k" pronounced) is an Eastern European and Yiddish snack food made popular in North America by Jewish immigrants and consists of a filling, traditionally made from mashed potato, ground meat, sauerkraut, onions, buckwheat groats or cheese, that is covered with dough that is either baked or fried.

So there you have it, if you have political aspirations and a photographer at hand, are fascinated by the somewhat faded kitsch facade, a knish connoisseur or just enjoy yummy flavoursome grub, then this is the place for you.

Friday, 27 February 2009


In that brilliant work on the depraved and squalid life rife in Lower Manhattan in the mid to late 1800's, in all its rumbustious and physical forms, "Low Life"author, Luc Sante attests:-
"By popular accord, the very worst dive on the Bowery in the 1890's was McGurk's Suicide Hall, on the East Side just above Houston Street, and it did not conduct its business in secrecy, since it possessed one of the first electric signs on the avenue" .............Entertainment consisted of singing waiters and a small band; the customers were, as ever, mostly sailors. " It was said that his business card reached every sailor in the world"
The Hall (above at 295, The Bowery) owned by a John McGurk, got its name because the conditions were so bad that its female employee's (and contract workers) resorted to on-the-job suicides. In 1899, there were at least six, as well as more than seven attempts. The victims were mostly the prostitutes who seem to be the main reason for the Hall's existence. It was a truly desperate place: nonetheless it became a morbid tourist attraction. Indeed, John McGurk focused on these morbid and wholly unpleasant happenings in his marketing efforts.
The favoured choice for the method was containers of carbolic acid, followed often by plummeting from the balconies onto the customers partying on the floor below. Waiters came to recognize persons who might attempt suicide and formed flying wedges to eject the aggrieved parties before the deed could be attempted or completed.
McGurk eventually closed the Suicide Hall and moved to California. The building saw nothing but flophouses and ruin for the most part of the 20th. century until an artist couple took over and turned it into a workspace. They in turn were forced out by the power of gentrification. The Hall was demolished in 2005 (above) and the site has been transformed into the sleek glass condominium Avalon Bowery Place (below).
In 1892 Charles H Hoyt wrote:-
"Oh! the night that I struck New York,
I went out for a quiet walk;
Folks who are "on to" the city say,
Better by far that I took Broadway;
But I was out to enjoy the sights,
There was the Bow'ry ablaze with lights;
I had one of the devil's own nights!
I'll never go there anymore."
Perhaps he saw the electric sign outside of the Suicide Hall and ventured in?
The developer, Avalon Communities, promises on the building's web site "excitement around every corner". While the same claim might have been made in McGurk's day, one presumes today's excitements are of a different order and that the ghosts of women plummeting to their deaths are not a feature of this development.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Eldridge Street (above) a narrow outwardly unprepossessing thoroughfare, is one of five streets in the Lower East Side named after military heroes of the War of 1812. In one grand municipal gesture of honour back in 1817, Eldridge Street was named for Lieutenant Eldridge scalped by Canadian Indians. Other than its original framework of tenement buildings, its prime architectural jewel is the Eldridge Street Synagogue. With the diminishing Jewish population its services were moved to the study hall in the basement and the rest of the magnificent building renovate and converted to a museum for nonsectarian appreciation of the architectural splendour and cultural history. Both a National Historic Landmark and a designated New York City landmark.

The street was birthplace to Ira Gershwin and Eddie Cantor.

The talented lyricist Ira Gershwin ( 1896-1983)(above) was born at 60, Eldridge Street, collaborated with his bother, George on countless numbers of memorable songs for stage and screen. Some of their shows included Oh, Kay!, Lady, Be Good, and Of Thee I Sing (for which Ira won a Pulitzer Prize for drama). In his later years he worked with other composers - Jerome Kern, Kurt Well, and Harold Arlen, to name a few. Musical talent must be in the air in this district as Irving Berlin and Al Jolson were both born nearby Eldridge Street.
Izzy (Israel) Iskowitz (above), better known as Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) was born in a gas-lit bedroom in a crowded apartment at 19 Eldridge Street, right across the street from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The actor/singer would later say, "I made my debut before a packed house." A world famous performer, he appeared in the Zielgfeld Follies and Whoopee on Broadway and a number of films. His energetic presentation made him a memorable character, and he was associated with such song hits as "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," "If You Knew Susie," "Margie," "Ida," and "Makin' Whooppee."
Later Cantor achieved a lot more fame for his performances in vaudeville and as time went on became a big star on radio and television shows.


To experience a taste of tenement living as highlighted by Jacob Riis, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97, Orchard Street (corner of Delancey Street). The influx of Europeans mid-18th century and the early years of the 19th century are part of the fabric of America, and this museum is a unique place where visitors can see and learn how tens of thousands of immigrants found way into America through New York's Lower East Side.

The museum is an actual tenement apartment building that has been restored to illustrate how tough, working-class immigrants built a new life in a country and the price they paid in terms of living conditions. The building was home to immigrants from 1863, the Civil War Years until 1935. The Tenement Museum staff have restored apartments to the way actual tenants lived in them and have painstakingly pieced together their family details and stories which adds tremendous color and poignancy to the each visitor's experience.

Each apartment comprised a tiny bedroom and living room which was often used for up to 18 hours each day as the tenant's and staff's work premises.

The sewing machine station and work table indicate this apartment served as both home and workplace. The sanitation was the outside/window system until 1901 when one indoor toilet per floor were proscribed by legislation arising from pressure from Jacob Riis and others. Each toilet served up to 3 apartments.

Orchard Street in late 1800's

The Lower East Side was one of the depressed area in the country with an 1890 population density of 37 persons per dwelling - half a million people in a tight corner of Manhattan. If your time in NYC only permits one museum/gallery visit. there is no competition - it has to be The Lower East Side Tenement Museum guided tour.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


Since my blog "A REAL FRIEND TO THE POOR" 17th. February, I have deepened my research into the life, times and achievements of Jacob Riis and have no hesitation in proclaiming him a New York City Titan. What he almost single-heartedly brought about - radical improvements to the living standards of tens of thousands of poor, wretched souls - was way beyond that of anybody else's achievements.

The squalid conditions that prevailed in Manhattan centering on Lower East Side had been of concern to those with a moral sense of right and wrong long before Riis took up the call. As far back as 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Five Points area in Lower East Side, which was a legendary neighbourhood of filth and vice. Dickens quite used to the most unpleasant districts in London was appalled by what he experienced in NYC and wrote:-

"Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come....." " Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game...........out of a number of ruined houses, open to the street, whence wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here."

He describes some of the residents thus:-

"....cowering down with long dishevelled hair.....gibbering.....vacant eye, fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips....the munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror."

Jacob Riis tirelessly sought to bring the poverty and vile living conditions to the widest possible audience, whether it be by journalism, books, lecture tours or perhaps his most powerful persuader, the black and white photograph pioneering the technique of flash powder. Some further examples of his brilliant portrayals of the plight of many New Yorkers:-

A typical Lower East Side tenement apartment comprising approx 250 sq ft, no running water, bath or toilet was home for this family of seven.

A ladies lodging house

A mens 5 cents-a-night lodging house

I make no apology for revisting this remarkable man other than I regret not accepting earlier his rightful place among the NEW YORK CITY TITANS.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


Pomander Walk runs from W94th to W95th Street just east of West End Avenue

Manhattan's 71,000 dwellings are mainly tenements, high-rise apartments, and single family units, the latter often broken up into apartments. But occasionally this predictable grid changes, and the oddities produced make for some enjoyable viewing.

Pomander Walk is a double row of storybook Tudor cottages that were built in 1922 and were a re-creation of the stage set for an English play of the same name that was a hit on Broadway in 1910. Not accessible to the riff-raff but viewable through the oddest of wrought-iron fences.

Sniffen Court just off E 36th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues

Sniffen Court an urban enclave of 10 ornate Romanesque Revival carriage houses built in the 1850's and converted to residential use when the horses grew tired of them. The two-storey ex-stable houses flank a paved courtyard decorated with guess what - iron horse heads.

Grove Court is found at 10 Grove Street in Greenwich Village
In a similar cul de sac is found Grove Court, an irregular row of brick-faced working men's cottages, was built in 1854 and was first known as Mixed Ale Alley. The 'great unwashed' can peer at this gem of NYC's architectural and historic heritage and the front gardens, through another impenetrable iron fence.
Washington Mews between 5th Ave and University Place

Here's one that us lesser beings can actually set foot on! Washington Mews - the British term for a row of stables with residences above - consists of a row of nineteenth-century stables on the north side and stucco houses on the south side dating back to 1939. A walk through this courtyard paved with Belgian blocks will give you a sense of being somewhere other than New York City.

Saturday, 21 February 2009


Kalustyan's at 123 Lexington Avenue (above) between E28 & 29th Streets, is a Lebanese/Armenian grocery emporium with one of the best collections of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Persian products in New York City, which has a mind-blowing display of rice. One can usually expect to find at least 20 varieties, offered in small one pound packages so you can buy a selection. From fat-grained Turkish rice, to odoriferous basmati, to Thai sticky, to sinister black rice, you'll see varieties you never knew existed.

The store is in the heart of 'Curry Hill' which is an area within the Murray Hill district and centered on E 29th Street, so named because of the high concentration of Indian Restaurants. Kalustyan's also specialises in nuts, spices, herbs, sweets, dried fruits, coffee, tea and healthy snacks (see below) all at bargain prices. The fine spices and food is sourced from all over the world from China to the sunny West Indies. Across all product ranges there are over 4,ooo different items to choose from. Little wonder that many of the Greater New York City top chefs regularly use Kalustyan's along with customers from a diverse walk-of-life and professions.

A carryout section at the back has some of the best tabouli (or tabbouleh) in town. Tabouli is a Levantine Arab dish often used as part of a meze. The Arabian translation of 'tabouli' is 'a little spicy.' Its primary ingredients are Bulgar, finely chopped parsley, mint, tomato, scallion, and other herbs with lemon juice, olive oil and various seasonings, generally including black pepper and sometimes cinnamon and allspice. In the Levant it is traditionally eaten with a lettuce leaf but in the United States it is often served with pita bread, as a dip.
An epicurean treasure house awaits your arrival.

Thursday, 19 February 2009


On first glance, all of the five-storey townhouses lining West 11th. Street between 5th and 6th Avenues blend together, lending the the block the same charming and unaffordable air of any other in Greenwich. However, 18 West 11th Street is a modern-looking, odd-angled house somewhat at architectural odds with its neighbours - a decided afterthought. The reason being that the property originally there was destroyed by a series of seven violent explosions just before noon on March 6th. 1970.

Those responsible for the levelling of no. 18 were 5 members of the radical Weathermen, an extremist group opposed to the Vietnam War, that in 1969 split from the Students for Democratic Society. The name 'weathermen' comes from the rather unfathomable logic that "You don't need to know the way the wind blows." It was, according to rumours, whilst making bombs destined for a military compound in New Jersey and for Butler Library at Columbia University, that the explosions occurred killing three of the group. One of the survivors was Cathryn Wilkerson, daughter of the owner of the property, James Wilkerson, who had gone away on holiday comforted by believing his home would be well looked after. The other survivor was another woman, Kathy Boudin.
Living in one of the adjoining brownstones was Dustin Hoffman, just having starred in 'The Graduate', who was seen moments after the explosions scampering from his building, a Tiffany lamp under his arm. Hoffman and his family, who rented the first-floor apartment in no. 16, like other residents in the building never returned to their homes, telling the NY Times in 2000 that the explosion was a "philosophy-changing" experience that shook him out of a "chrysalis."
Wilkerson (above a short while before the explosion) and Boudin had apparently raced from the ruins naked and, after borrowing some clothes from a neighbour, vanished. Cathlyn turned herself in ten years later and was sentenced to eleven months in prison for negligent homicide. Boudin wasn't captured until 1981, when she participated in a Brinks armoured truck holdup in which two cops and a security officer were killed, for which she was sentenced to a prison term of twenty years to life. Cathlyn's father eventually sold his rubbled lot and the new owners built a modern, space-age home, to the howls of aesthetic protests all along the block.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Gujarat, a relatively small Indian state nestled on the Arabian Sea and against the Pakistani border, is famous for its vegetarian cuisine, reflecting Jainist, Buddist and Hindu influences on the culture. If you cannot make the trip, head down to 409, Third Avenue (at 29th Street), open the door to Vatan (above) and ring to announce your arrival. When the bell quiets, your hostess will have arrived and you will find yourself welcomed into a beautifully imagined Gujarati village (below), complete with banyan tree and balcony seating.

Your elegant hostess may well sweetly remark at the beginning of the meal that you should think of her as the Indian mother you never had (Yuk)! You will be promised to be well fed and promptly served. If after all that hyperbolic swash, you are hungry then boy have you struck gold here.

Traditional Gujarati meals are served on a thali "silver platter," with each dish in little metal bowls along with rice, puri, and a selection of chutneys. Vatan serves its meals in three courses (appetizers, main course and dessert) and allows diners to return to any part of the all-you-can-eat meal to savor more of their favorite dish. Although a 'prix fixe' menu, diners can select the level of spiciness, from mild to very spicy.

Very few, if any, are disappointed that it is vegetarian cuisine and most, again probably all, customers wander out of the door back into the streets of New York with a feeling of repleteness and well-being.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


No person could have done more than Jacob Riis (above) (1849-1914) to improve the appalling conditions that many thousands of people were forced to live in amongst the slums and stench-ridden tenements that proliferated in lower Manhattan. An immigrant from Denmark in 1870 he was unable to find work, he was often forced to spend the night in police station lodging houses. Riis did a variety of menial jobs before finding work with a news bureau in 1873 and by 1877 had progressed to a police reporter with the New York Tribune, staying until 1888 when he was employed as a photo-journalist by the New York Evening Sun.

a multi-occupancy dwelling at Bleeker Street (corner of Mercer and Greene Streets)
Aware of what is was like to live in poverty, Riis was determined to employ his journalistic skills to communicate this to the public. He constantly argued that the "poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate". Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. He also became associated with what later became known as 'muckraking' journalism nowadays softened to 'investigative' journalism.

With unfailing accuracy, he questioned some of the things he saw and didn't like, used his pen and was a pioneer in photo-journalism. Using his own photography to fully illustrate his documentaries to indict the slums and tenements of a New York City in the dawn of a new century.

young children grabbing some sleep in Mulberry Street

In December, 1889, his account of the abysmal quality of city life, illustrated by photographs, appeared in Scribner's Magazine which created a great deal of interest and, so the following year, a full length version, "How the Other Half Lives" was published. The book was read by Theodore Roosevelt, the New York Police Commissioner, and he had the city police lodging houses, that were featured in the book closed down. Roosevelt was much moved by Riis's accounts and photographs of the deprivations suffered by those poor souls living in such turgid conditions, that as he rose up the political ladder to President of the United States, he contributed greatly to increasing the living standards of the ordinary working classes.

basement lodgings

a typical tiny tenement apartment where a family both lived and worked

For the rest of his life Riis wrote and lectured on the problems of the poor. This included magic lantern shows and one observer noted that "his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted and even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not as images but as virtual reality that transported the New York slum world directly into the lecture hall."

President Roosevelt was so deeply moved by Riis's sense of justice that he remained a close friend for the rest of his life, calling him "the best American I ever knew."

Monday, 16 February 2009


The sad and 'shock-horror' news is that The Amato Opera, located on the corner of Bowery and 2nd Street in the East Village, is closing on 31st. May after 60 years of serving up homemade popular productions mainly in basement theaters. Throughout its six decades of existence, The Amato Opera has been a fixture of New York's artistic scene. Countless artists who are now on the rosters of the "great" houses (The Metropolitan, La Scala etc) got their first exposure to audiences at the Amato.

The theatre (above) seats 103 with a balcony and all seats are excellent for acoustics and sightlines. In this uniquely intimate setting, opera takes on a new, almost tactile, dimension contrasting with the relative remoteness of performances in the larger opera houses. The company will finish the season and its long and much cherished life with productions of "La Boheme" and "The Marriage of Figaro."

Under the guidance of artistic director Anthony Amato (above), the company has produced full productions of over 50 operas of the standard repertoire, as well as many world and American premieres of lesser known works. Until her death in 2002, Mr Amato ran the company jointly with his wife, Sally, but now feels that at 88 years old it is time to start a new chapter in his life. He intends to write his memoirs, establish a foundation to help young singers, conductors and directors and study scores especially Wagner's.
The loss of The Amato Opera will be a body blow to all lovers of opera performed well in intimate surroundings and at a cost affordable to most.

Sunday, 15 February 2009


The patch of greenery amongst the towering edifices, is Bryant Park, at the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street. Back in 1686 when it was still wilderness, and part of the hunting grounds of Native Americans, it was designated as public property by New York's colonial governor Thomas Dongan. The city established a potters field (paupers burial ground) on the site in 1823. The site of Bryant Park is in a part of Manhattan that was countryside well north of the populous city until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century.

Ice skating is free in the colder months against the backdrop of the New York Public Library, reckoned to be one of the top architectural highlights in the city.

In 1847, after the construction of a wondrously grand edifice, the Croton Reservoir, on the present site of the present Library, Bryant Park became a public park. During the Civil War, the Union Army held military drills in Bryant Park and shortly after that, the Civil War Draft Riots raged in the immediate vicinity of the park.

In 1853-54, New York's first "world's fair", the Crystal Palace Exhibition, took place on the site of Bryant Park. The remarkable iron and glass structure erected to house the fair, remained standing until 1858, when it burned down.

The reservoir was drained in 1899 for the construction of the library, which was completed in 1911 and is well worth a visit to view its architectural merits. THe park was redesigned in 1934 with a sunken central lawn, side promenades encircled with a granite balustrade, and reshaped entrances off of Sixth Avenue. Another round of improvements throughout the 1970's and 1980's added restaurant kiosks, outdoor patio seating, outdoor theater capabilities, a formal restaurant, improved landscaping and easier public access.

A delightful children's carousel adds to the attractions.

The Park was named after William Cullen Bryant, the poet and newspaper editor who was an early advocate of public parks in the city, and is now managed and funded privately by the Bryant Park Corporation, founded in 1980 by a group of prominent New Yorkers, including members of the Rockefeller family. THe park is also used for fashion shows and other large-scale media events.


Perhaps the least austere of the New York City prisons, has to be the Ludlow Street Jail (above right), formerly at the corner of Ludlow and Broome, opened in 1862 and sat for many years smack in the middle of a stretch of residential tenements. Originally a debtors prison, the red-bricked jail complex, with its 87 cells and an open courtyard, later kept county detainees, some of whom could pay to receive better accommodations as though it were a hotel. The 'extras' were access to a reading room (above left), a billiards room, and an 'upgraded' cell and facilities. Inmates were also allowed to wear their own clothes and top hats were very common. All-in-all it was more like a rather exclusive 'gentleman's club'.

The two most famous inmates were Boss Tweed and Victoria Woodhull.

William Magear (Boss) Tweed (1823-1878) (above), a politician and head of Tammany Hall, the name given to the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in NYC politics from the 1790's to the 1960's. After being arrested for bilking the city out of millions of dollars, Tweed jumped bail and was apprehended in Spain. He was subsequently delivered to authorities in NYC in November 1876. He was imprisoned in the Ludlow Street Jail, occupying the warden's parlour for $75.00 a week. He died two years after being imprisoned at the age of 55.

Victoria Woodhall (above), the free-love advocate who became the first woman to run for president, spent her 1872 election day together with her sister Tennessee, in a jail here for sending obscene material through the mail, documenting the alleged womanizing of Plymouth Church's Henry Ward Beecher. The event incited questions about censorship and government persecution. The sisters were found not guilty six months later, but the arrest prevented Victoria from being present during the 1872 presidential election.

In 1929, the block was cleared to make way for what many would consider a new form of incarceration - the new Seward Park High School - now shared by five new smaller high schools. The original High School was notable for poor performing students and an alarming amount of dropouts and was eventually closed in 2006. Former 'inmates' of this institution include Tony Curtis, Estelle Getty, and Jerry Stiller.

Saturday, 14 February 2009


William Burroughs remarked that "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of levi's to both sexes." Although he produced dozens of semi-autobiographical books, it is as icon and author of On The Road, which he claimed to have written in three weeks, that Jack Kerouac is remembered. The book published in 1957, is a largely autobiographical work that was written based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. It is often considered a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry and drug experiences.

Jack Kerouac

On The Road was written while Kerouac and his second wife, Joan Haverty, lived at 454, 2oth West Street (above). Kerouac typed the manuscript on what he called "the scroll", a continuous one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together. The roll was typed single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks. Contrary to rumour, Kerouac said he used no stimulants during the brief but productive writing session, other than coffee.

When the book was originally released, the New York Times hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation. The novel was chosen as one of the 100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
Kerouac (1922-1969) best summarised his take on humanity thus:-
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles."