Friday, October 27, 2023

Groceries, Beer, and Adulterated Baking Powder -- 982 Second Avenue


photo by Ted Leather

The Turtle Bay section of Manhattan got its name from Turtle Bay Farm, a 40-acre land grant given to two Englishmen by the Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam in 1639.  Once an area of summer homes of wealthy New Yorkers, it saw tremendous change following the end of the Civil War.  By the mid 1860s, modest dwellings and rows of flat buildings had been erected to house workers in the gritty businesses built to take advantage of the riverfront.  Immigrants found jobs in breweries, cigar factories, gasworks, slaughterhouses and cattle pens, and piers.  At one point there were 18 acres of slaughterhouses (or abattoirs) along First Avenue alone.

Among the flat and store buildings was 982 Second Avenue at the southeast corner of 52nd Street.  Completed around 1866, it was four stories tall and clad in red brick above the storefront, which was likely cast iron.  Its unpresuming Italianate design included molded brownstone lintels and a simple cornice upheld by a row of modest corbels.

In 1867 the store was occupied by John E. Meyer's grocery.  Upstairs were respectable, blue collar tenants like William Ward, a builder; and William Jones, who was a seaman. Another German, Kaufman Baer, took over the grocery store in 1873.  Five years later, he sold it to Richard and Herman Seekamp.  It was the second Seekamp Brothers grocery, the other being a few blocks south at 106 Second Avenue.

The working class tenants of 982 Second Avenue often struggled to maintain a livelihood.  Teenaged children left school to help with their families' finances.  On October 24, 1878, for instance, a situation wanted advertisement in the New York Herald read, "982 2d Av--Young girl as first class laundress in private family; city references."

The less privileged New Yorkers also had to deal with unscrupulous merchants, who sometimes mixed other ingredients into their products.  Some, for instance, diluted milk and then added fillers and coloring agents--like plaster of Paris and molasses--to make the resulting product look and taste like wholesome milk.  The indefensible practice prompted the passage of the State Board of Health's Adulteration Law.

Unfortunately for Turtle Bay residents, they had one such merchant operating among them.  On December 14, 1882, The Sanitary Engineer reported that Herman Seekamp had been arrested by state investigators "for selling cream of tartar which was adulterated with ground gypsum."  Cream of tartar was, essentially, what is known as baking powder today.  The article explained, "The adulteration...amounted to from 37 per cent to 92 per cent of terra alba or ground gypsum."

Significant change to the corner store came in 1886 when John W. Holt took over the lease and converted the grocery to a saloon.  Interestingly, he and his family did not move into one of the apartments above the tavern, but lived two doors away at 986 Second Avenue.  In 1890 Holt negotiated with the Peter Doelger Brewery and gave the firm a chattel mortgage on the store.  While he continued operating his saloon, it was now controlled by the brewery, which dictated that only Doelger products could be sold here.

The Turtle Bay neighborhood had been greatly German and Irish when 982 Second Avenue was built.  The gradual influx of Italians was reflected in 1895 when Gaetano Gardiulo received a permit to operate a stand on the sidewalk out front.  It allowed him to sell "newspapers, periodicals, fruit and soda-water."

In 1898 the saloon became O'Reilly & Lavelle, run by Thomas O'Reilly and Dominick Lavelle.  Three years later, after Lavelle dropped out and O'Reilly brought his brother James into the business, it was renamed O'Reilly & O'Reilly.  Outside, the fruit stand was being operated by Italian immigrant Antonio Barbarbera in 1901.

As John W. Holt had done, in 1904 O'Reilly & O'Reilly negotiated a chattel mortgage with a brewery.  They were now obligated to sell only Lion Brewery beers and ales.

Not all of the upstairs tenants came and went about their business quietly.  On the morning of October 1, 1909, Milton Levy entered the fish store of Peter Chinchino at 115th Street and Third Avenue.  The New York Call reported that, according to Chinchino, Levy, "started in to wreck the place.  He broke dishes, threw fish on the floor and was smashing an electric light when Policeman Hargrove interfered."

Facing a charge of disorderly conduct, Milton Levy pleaded with Magistrate O'Connell that he had never been arrested before and asked for leniency.  The New York Call reported, "He was about to escape with a $2 fine when one of the court officers remembered his face and said the man had been in custody before."  O'Connell was not happy with being lied to.  After he "lectured him," he sent Levy to the workhouse.

By 1911 the saloon had been converted to a wine store.  On May 25 that year, the American Meat Trade and Retail Butchers Journal commented, "'Those who known a good wine know Endlich, Feit & Co., of 982 Second avenue,' is a saying peculiarly true in this instance.  Many of the affairs recently given by the socially inclined in the meat trade were catered to by Endlich, Feit & Co., with long necked, dusty bottles of grape.  In the central section of Manhattan they are well known, and their fame is spreading."

But Prohibition put an end to the long tradition of beer, ale and wine within 982 Second Avenue.  In 1921 the ground floor was home to M. Lieberman's furniture store.  An advertisement in January that year touted, "Special Sale--Great reduction on all kinds of furniture, carpets, oilcloths, baby carriages, trunks &c."

By the second half of the century, change was coming to the Turtle Bay neighborhood as modern, high-rise apartment buildings replaced the old flat buildings and lured upper-middle-class residents.  On March 5, 1964, the New York Post reported on singer Mark Plant's new "antiquery," named Push Cart East.  It survived into the early 1970s, replaced by the vintage clothing store, Classic Clothes.  The space was home to two restaurants before, as had been the case in 1867, it once again became a grocery store.   Upstairs are a total of 14 apartments.

many thanks to reader Ted Leather for requesting this post.
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