Friday, September 6, 2013

The Eliza Doolittle of Tenement Houses -- No. 320 W 47th Street

photo by Alice Lum

Following the Civil War the gritty West Side of Manhattan from the 30s to the upper 50s developed as warehouses, slaughterhouses, factories and docks drew immigrant workers.  Ramshackle wooden buildings became havens of crime and street gangs terrorized railroads, businesses and residents alike.  The neighborhood earned the apt but unflattering nickname Hell’s Kitchen.

By the mid-1870s tenement houses were being built to house the growing number of impoverished laborers.  One stood out.   At No. 320 West 47th Street a handsome brownstone-clad apartment building drew on the Italianate mansions of a decade earlier for inspiration.
photo by Alice Lum
Carved window surrounds sitting on small brackets, paneled spandrels below the first floor openings, and an Italianate cornice mimicked the private homes of Manhattan’s upper class.  A showy arched pediment capped the single-door entrance, supported by foliate scrolled brackets and flaunting a matching keystone.  Carved, paneled pilasters flanked the entrance.  To accommodate an apartment on either side of the central corridor within, however, the architect had to scrimp on the width of the entrance—resulting in proportions too narrow for the rather grand architectural elements.   

Like the character in My Fair Lady, it wore the dress of a far more aristocratic structure.
The entrance is especially handsome with arched pediment, beautifully-carved foliate brackets and paneled pilasters.  (The pigeon spikes are a later addition!)  photo by Alice Lum
Conditions in tenement buildings—despite outward appearances of No. 320—were normally crowded and dirty.  The New York Times said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.”   Health officials eyed the tenements for any hint of communicable diseases.  In July 1877 their attention was drawn to No. 320 West 47th Street.

The family of Peter Van Keuren was among the tenants in the building.  A letter-carrier, the 49-year old was sensitive to heat exposure; a problematic condition for his chosen profession.   Van Keuren’s mail route enable him to escape the direct sun by walking in the shade or dodging into stores and doorways.  But at the end of June he was given the “pony route,” and “in serving this he was fully exposed to the heat," as explained by a newspaper.

Although he complained to his wife that he felt unwell, Van Keuren continued his route for two weeks, until he was forced to stay home.  Doctor Harwood visited, found him nauseated and prescribed medicine.  The doctor came back on July 16, a day later at 10:00 at night.  The following morning at 7:00 Van Keuren died.

The doctor had not told the patient nor his wife his fears.  “I made up my mind from his very striking symptoms that he had a genuine case of Asiatic cholera, and I was alarmed.  I feared to tell him the truth, because the knowledge would have hurt him,” he later told reporters.

Cholera was a word that struck fear and panic in crowded cities.  The disease had killed 3,515 New Yorkers in 1832 and the memory of that devastating epidemic was still fresh.

“Van Keuren’s skin the second time I called was cold and shrunk; his hands were cold and shriveled, and like a woman’s who has been a long time washing in the suds.”

Assistant Sanitary Inspector Dwyer was sent to the building to investigate.  The family was reluctant to give any information that would lead investigators to believe they were responsible for a dangerous, contagious disease.   In his report Dwyer said “the family of the deceased, for some reason, were very reticent, but he learned that the deceased had eaten copiously of corned-beef and cabbage at his dinner at noon on Monday, and in the evening had partaken of blackberries, soon after which he was taken sick.”

Dr. Harwood was unmoved.  “If ever a man died of a clear case of cholera, Peter Van Keuren did so, and there is no use in attempting to conceal the fact,” he said.

 Van Keuren’s burial was delayed pending an autopsy and The New York Times reported that “As a precautionary measure, the premises where the death occurred were thoroughly disinfected by the Disinfecting Corps of the Health Department.”
 Crisp, carved window enframements, sills and lintels add dimension to the smooth planar facade -- photo by Alice Lum

The tenants who filled the building were typical of those throughout the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.   A mixture of racial and ethnic backgrounds peopled the apartments, not always with pleasant results.   In July 1894 the teen-aged daughters of a black family, Jessie Jeniset, and an Italian one, Rosie Lamonte, got into an argument. 

The bad blood simmered and finally came to a boil on July 10.  Jessie was talking to a young boy at Broadway and 47th Street when Rosie happened along carrying her baby sister.  The Evening World reported that “The quarrel was renewed.  Each called the other hard names.  Jessie’s companion, the colored boy, when the quarrel was at its height, drew a razor, and thrusting it into Jessie’s hand, told her to ‘cut her heart out.’”

14-year old girls in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood were hardened and street tough.  Jessie slashed at the baby Rosie was carrying, but managed only to slice her dress.  She then turned on Rosie, cutting her twice across the back and face.

Rosie was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where she was held for a week.  The Evening World said “She is disfigured for life.”

In the meantime, Jessie ran home and told her father what she had done.  In an effort to shield her from police, he sent her to friends in Maryland.

Almost two months later word on the street reached Rosie that her attacker was back in the city.  The teen went to Yorkville Police Court and secured a warrant for her arrest.  Detective Bellar banged on the Jeniset door on the night of August 30 and took Jessie away.  She was held on $1,000 bond—an impossible sum for the impoverished family, about $25,000 in today’s money.

Well represented in the mix of tenants were the Irish.  45-year old Joseph Dyer, described by The Times as “an Irish laborer,” was a large man who would not be intimidated by wealth nor social status.  On February 24, 1901 Dyer was riding the downtown Columbus Avenue street car.  Also on the car were 29-year old George D. Crooks and his sister.  The Times described Crooks as “a small man, and wearing fine clothes and eyeglasses.”

When the car reached 76th Street, Crooks and his sister attempted to disembark; however Dyer stood in the doorway and refused to budge.  “Crooks rashly tried to shove the herculean laborer aside,” reported the newspaper.

Dyer threatened the man with a barrage of street jargon “Stand back, stand back, you dude.  I’ll smash yer face.  Don’t think because you’ve better clothes nor me I’ll let you treat me like a baste.”

When the car reached the next stop at 74th Street, Crooks and his sister got out; but Dyer was right behind them.

“I’ll give you one good punch if it costs me $5,” he roared, referring to the fine for disorderly conduct, and he aimed his fist at Crooks’ face.

The Times reported that Crooks “dodged nimbly and then brought his silver-tipped cane down with a crash on Dyer’s head.  The laborer dropped like one shot.  His roars for the police were audible a block away, and Policeman Joseph Craig ran to Dyer’s rescue.”

An ambulance surgeon treated Dyer’s scalp wound.  The Irishman insisted that Crooks be arrested and “the Sergeant reluctantly entertained his complaint.”  Crooks was quickly bailed out by a friend and, assumedly, Joseph Dyer learned that size does not always dictate might.

Another Irish-born immigrant living here at the time was John McHugh, a guard on the elevated railroad.  McHugh managed to make himself hated city-wide when he made a rash decision to board a train on the wrong side of the tracks.  It ended in the death of one man and serious injury to three others.

Around 7:45 on the morning of September 3, 1902, while still wearing his uniform and a straw hat, McHugh finished his work and, according to him, was in a hurry to get “to a funeral of a cousin.”  So, while standing among the workers between the tracks, he grabbed the handrail of a fast-moving train on the opposite side of the train from the platform.

The Times reported that “while he clung to the handrail as the train drew rapidly out of the station, his projecting body swept the victims, who were at work between the tracks laying the conductor rail for the coming electric power, one after the other from their feet and throwing one before the advancing locomotive of a south-bound train which killed him.”

Most galling to officials and newspaper readers was McHugh’s apparent lack of regret.  He went on his way and was later arrested in his apartment by Roundsman Hertz of the West 30th Street Station.

“Coroner Scholer says that he has proof that McHugh looked back at the awful sight which his act had caused and laughed,” said The Times.  “The prisoner was surly and indifferent during two arraignments.”

The Coroner denounced his “apparently heartless demeanor and chastised, 'You do not seem to know or care that you imperiled the lives of these workmen; that one of them is dead and that half a dozen women who saw the horrible accident fainted.'”

Unlike the relatively tepid Fourth of July celebrations today, in the first years of the 20th century small explosives were set off indiscriminately and pistols were routinely fired with abandon—often by children.  On Independence Day 1914 tenant Charles Green came face-to-face with the dangerous festivities.  The following day it was reported that he had been “shot in the back by accidentally discharged revolver in hands of unidentified person.”

But at least one resident of No. 320 got positive press.  In 1920 Herman Henry Nicholas Hillebrandt achieved the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Aviation Section of the Reserve Signal Corps.  The impressive news was widely printed.
photo by Alice Lum

In the second half of the 20th century another wave of immigrants reached New York—the Cubans who fled their homeland following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.  One of them was Ignacio Nova.

Nova joined the Cuban Nationalist Association, the purpose of which was to denounce and defeat Castro.  On May 14, 1960 the Cuban Consulate was opened because, according to the Consul General, “the Cuban Government is taking a registration of its nationals in New York.”

Ignacio Nova and his group showed up to picket outside.   If the protest was intended to be peaceful, it ended up anything but.  “Two hundred supporters and opponents of Premier Fidel Castro clashed yesterday in front of the Cuban consulate on the East Side,” reported The Times.  “Nine persons were hurt.  Fists, clubs and umbrellas were swung in the fracas after eight anti-Castro partisans had attempted to picket the consulate.”

Dr. Rogelio Guillot, the Cuban Consul General, called the picketers “gangsters,” and Ignacio Nova countered that the picketing “was designed to protest the suppression of press freedom in Cuba.”

Before the melee was over 18 persons were arrested, nine injured and three policemen were taken to the hospital.

The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood around No. 320 West 47th Street is less gritty, less dangerous, and much cleaner than it was in the 1870, 1920s, and 1960s.  The handsome brownstone tenement which tried so hard to emulate a Fifth Avenue dwelling is barely changed, and still manages to remain just a little classier than its neighbors.

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