Architectural richness and the romance of a time gone by help to define today’s Flatiron District. Since April 2007, the BID staff has been highlighting the area’s most historic structures as well as some of the people and businesses that have either thrived here for decades or are noteworthy for other reasons.

Sep 8, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Role of 1930s New Deal Programs in Flatiron

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke the memorable words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” during his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, he set out to inspire Americans to engage in work-related programs to ignite the economy out of Great Depression. This month, the Flatiron Partnership highlights some of the notable policies known as New Deal programs that were instituted by Roosevelt and Congress to offer relief, recovery, and reform to the Flatiron District and other communities across the nation.

With the Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, “the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established with approximately $5 billion in funding, providing public jobs for the unemployed–the largest jobs initiative in American history,” notes The Encyclopedia of New York City. This Executive Order-created agency was later renamed as the Works Projects Administration in 1939.

Other relief programs included the Public Works Administration (PWA), initiated in 1933, which “paid private contractors to build large-scale projects proposed by states,” the National Youth Administration (NYA) that began in 1935 as an agency that hired young men and women who were either in or out of school, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of 1933 (FERA), which awarded “grants to states for works programs to hire the unemployed and provide direct relief payments to the indigent."

Subway excavation workers by Andrew via NYC Department of Records and Information Services.

The railways were a major form of mass transit for New Yorkers and the system was a work in progress. To help subsidize and set in motion the public system’s future for generations to come, PWA funds were issued for the line’s construction. The proposed Independent Sixth Avenue subway line (IND) was viewed as the modern-day answer to the former elevated railway system. This new underground corridor, which featured six IND stations, including the 23rd Street subway stop in Flatiron, could transport a rider for a nickel under Sixth Avenue.

For a reported cost of nearly $60 million, the two-mile portion of the IND line made its debut on December 15, 1940. “Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had dedicated it to public use by cutting a red, white and blue ribbon stretched across a battery of turnstiles at the south end of the huge station at Thirty-Fourth Street,” noted The New York Times that day. Most importantly, the subway structure generated jobs for "657 additional operating employees, trainmen and station agents ...131 maintainers, trackmen, and special policemen," wrote The Times.

Admiral Farragut Monument at the north end of Madison Square Park via NYC Parks.

The mid-1930s also introduced the WPA-sponsored restoration efforts of national monuments. One Flatiron statue in need of repair was Madison Square Park’s Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. Located at the north end of the Park at 25th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, the 9-foot tall Farragut statue was granted a Park dedication in 1881 to honor the Rear Admiral’s defeat of Confederate forces at Alabama’s Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, where he reportedly proclaimed his immortal phrase: “Damn the torpedoes…full speed…ahead!” Several decades later, New Yorkers would pull together to restore the Farragut statue. With the readiness of the team underway, according to The New York Times on August 23, 1936, “expert carvers... will soon be at work on a pedestal for the famous Farragut statue".

Robust funding of the arts was also a signature of the New Deal. Harry Hopkins, who led New York City's WPA, declared in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[artists] have got to eat just like other people.” The Treasury Department chose to commission eight murals by architect Kindred McLeary to appear inside the Madison Square Post Office, located at 149-153 East 23rd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. This facility was reportedly the “most important postal station in New York City.” McLeary’s creative artistry featured City scenes ranging from Central Park to Wall Street to Greenwich Village.

Scenes of New York-Central Park by Kindred McLeary via Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Another local art commission included nearly 1,000 square feet of oil on canvas murals by artist and painter Erle (Earl) Lonsbury displayed at the 69th Regiment’s Lexington Avenue Armory headquarters, located between 25th and 26th Streets. Lonsbury’s Armory wall murals featured the Regiment's most noteworthy missions he Wheatfield at Gettysburg in 1863, the 1918 Battle of the Ourcq, and a New York welcome home parade from 1865. 

WPA and municipal funds were also used to pave the way for a street redesign that included the Fourth Avenue expansion, now known as Park Avenue South, between 14th and 23rd Streets. Reportedly, 2,500 WPA men removed 33 miles of trolley tracks throughout New York City.

The end result of New Deal programs and related infrastructure proved to be a success. By the mid-1940s, many programs ended operations due to various factors, including worker shortages created by World War II. President Roosevelt, a cousin of Flatiron native and former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, expressed great satisfaction with the achievements and accomplishments the policies provided to the populace and the architectural upgrades that reshaped structural designs.

During his third inaugural address on January 20, 1941, President Roosevelt declared that “most vital to our present and to our future is this experience of a democracy which successfully survived crisis at home; put away many evil things; built new structures on enduring lines; and, through it all, maintained the fact of its democracy.” 

Photo Credit: NYC Department of Records and Information Services

Aug 13, 2020

Discover Flatiron: The New York City Blackout of 1965

As part of our Discover Flatiron series spotlighting stories of New York resiliency, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the rush hour subway commute on the evening of November 9th, 1965 when a massive power failure brought the subway system to a halt. The halt sparked a spirit of unity among transit employees and subway passengers during an eventful moment that would become known as the New York City Blackout of 1965.

On the night of Wednesday, November 9th, 1965, at the height of the City’s rush hour, hundreds of passengers in subway cars were packed in place for their rapid dash to areas such as the Flatiron District and beyond. Above ground, the outdoor temperature registered in the mid-40s, the sky was clear, and a full moon was in effect. But at 5:28 pm, an unexpected electrical shutdown interrupted the commutes of New Yorkers across 630 subway trains and impacted 30 million residents in eight northeastern U.S. states, as well as the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in neighboring Canada. 

“The blackout was caused by the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line near Ontario, Canada, at 5:16 pm, which caused several other heavily loaded lines also to fail,” notes the History Channel. “This precipitated a surge of power that overwhelmed the transmission lines in western New York, causing a ‘cascading’ tripping of additional lines, resulting in the eventual breakup of the entire Northeastern transmission network.”

However, in Time magazine’s November 19th, 1965 issue, the publication detailed that some New Yorkers claimed “they had seen a satellite pass over at the moment the lights failed, argued that the Russians had done it again. Many clung stubbornly to the belief that it was all a government-ordered test to see if Americans could stand up to an air raid.”

In reality, the power failure forced trains to sputter “to a halt in tunnels, on elevated tracks, and in stations…stranding about 800,000 rush hour riders–10,000 of whom were still stuck at midnight,” reported The New York Times on November 10th, 1965. “The Transit Authority and the Police Department worked into the early hours of the morning attempting to remove passengers from crowded, stalled trains.” 

The “evacuation of 800,000 people from the subway was laborious, and especially perilous was the rescue for subway riders stuck under or over the East River,” recalls the New-York Historical Society. “Police took five hours to assist passengers along catwalks on the Williamsburg Bridge, but other commuters chose to wait it out, rather than move on foot among mud and rats in the subway tunnels. Train commuters either slept in cars marooned in stations or simply stretched out on the floor of Grand Central station.”


(Photo Credit: Stranded Commuters in Grand Central by John Lent via ABC 7)

Around midnight, “food was sent to passengers who were still waiting to be escorted out along the narrow catwalks in dark tunnels and high above rivers and streets,” according to The New York Times. “People were wonderful,” The Times wrote in quoting a Transit attendant who assisted straphangers. “They even let the ladies out first.” The paper also reported that while passengers waited for assistance, many struck up conversations with each other. “Most of the irritation,” stated The Times, “was taken out on sarcasm.”

Hollywood was also ready to cash in on the chatter with a satirical take on the blackout in the 1968 theatrical release of Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? Starring Doris Day, Robert Morse, and legendary gossip columnist Earl Wilson playing himself. The 89-minute comedy featured fictional accounts of the night’s events. The film produced a box office profit of nearly $8 million, as well as an eponymous song sung by the American trio The Lettermen.  

(Photo Credit: MGM Studios)

In the aftermath of the New York City Blackout of 1965, “electric companies learned many important lessons, one of them being the importance of corrective measures to prevent such blackouts from happening again,” explains Baruch College. “The Northeast Reliability Council and New York Power Pool were two regulatory organizations that emerged after the blackout. Their role was to ensure that the quality of the equipment was kept up to standards across all power plants. As a result, they set the standards for the best possible operational guidelines in the industry.”

Within hours of the Wednesday night blackout, however, many of the areas that had been plunged into darkness were now returning to some level of light and normalcy. News outlets began to issue reports that power had been reinstated to a number of regions, including Canada by 8 pm, Upstate New York at 9 pm, and Massachusetts by 10 pm. New York City, however, took the longest to recover, with power starting up at approximately 3:30 am the next day.

In the days to follow, the Transit Authority expressed appreciation to commuters and its team through the Authority’s in-house publication The Subway Sun. The agency stated, in part, about that eventful evening, “Your Transit Authority wants to thank the many thousands of passengers who accepted with patience and understanding the inconveniences of the recent power blackout. We deeply appreciate both your fine conduct and the many hundreds of letters you have written to us to praise Transit employees. When the lights went out you were at your brightest.”

Header Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jul 22, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Silent Protest Parade of 1917 in Madison Square

Content Warning: This article mentions racial violence. 

In honor of its upcoming 103rd anniversary, the Flatiron Partnership looks back at the historic significance of the groundbreaking Fifth Avenue demonstration initiated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on 59th Street, and the procession’s hushed finish on 23rd Street in the Flatiron District. The “Silent Protest Parade” on July 28, 1917 was one of the first U.S. civil rights public marches led by African-Americans.

"On the afternoon of Saturday, July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue, in silence, to protest racial violence and white supremacy in the United States," stated Chad Williams in an op-ed piece published in the Miami Herald. "New York City, and the nation, had never before witnessed such a remarkable scene."

Just a few weeks prior to the march, noted the Herald, “Simmering labor tensions between white and Black workers exploded on the evening of July 2, 1917” in East St. Louis, Illinois. For a full 24-hour period, white mobs committed hundreds of egregious acts of racially motivated violence against Black people, with a death toll that was officially 39, but may have run as high as 100 or more according to Simthsonian Magazine

The NAACP quickly responded to the massacre. According to the organization, they “soon issued a call for a Silent Protest Parade.” The NAACP, established in 1909, is self-described as the “nation’s foremost, largest, and most widely recognized civil rights organization." NAACP leaders James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois soon formed a Silent Protest Parade Committee that also included other influential members of the African-American community.


(Photo Credit: Underwood and Underwood courtesy of James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts
and Letters, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

“We march because by the Grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of prejudice and inhuman injustices must fall,” noted the parade planners about their scheduled peaceful protest. “We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts. We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot. Be in line on Saturday and show that you have not become callous to the sorrows of your race.” 

Circulars defining the parade’s mission were distributed to the quiet onlookers who appeared along the parade’s route. For the parade’s participants, however, “it was not until they reached Twenty-third Street, where they dispersed, that they permitted themselves a few outbursts of cheers, these being occasioned by the waving of some of their more elaborately inscribed banners calling for justice and equal rights,” noted the Times on July 29, 1917. Police estimates, according to the newspaper, indicated that “although there were not more than 8,000 in the parade itself," over 20,000 members of the Black community lined Fifth Avenue and "gave silent approval of the demonstration.” The Silent Protest Parade that ended on 23rd Street in the Flatiron District would also become the blueprint for future marches throughout America during the decades to come, including the Black Lives Matter Marches of today.

The Silent Protest March “marked the beginning of a new epoch in the long Black freedom struggle,” noted the Miami Herald. “While adhering to a certain politics of respectability, a strategy employed by African-Americans that focused on countering racist stereotypes through dignified appearance and behavior, the protest, within its context, constituted a radical claiming of the public sphere and a powerful affirmation of Black humanity.”


Photo Credit: The Miami Herald 

Jun 23, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Ackerman Institute for the Family and The Audre Lorde Project

As we enter the last week of  Pride Month 2020, and in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership looks back at the early history of two notable neighborhood organizations that provide support to members of the LGBTQIA+ community as a whole, as well as to the  Black LGBTQIA+ community specifically–the Ackerman Institute for the Family and Audre Lorde Project.

When the Ackerman Institute for the Family relocated from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Flatiron District in 2006, it pledged continued support in “developing clinical projects that focus on specific populations” at their state-of-the-art facility, according to their website ackerman.org. Located at 936 Broadway, between 21st and 22nd Streets, one of the Institute’s current projects is the Gender & Family Project (GFP), which was initiated in 2010.

The Ackerman Institute is reportedly one of the best-known and highly-regarded non-profit training facilities for family therapists. Founded in 1960 by Dr. Nathan W. Ackerman, who had practiced traditional analysis, he later made an innovative clinical choice to switch to the practice of seeing patients and their family members together in a group session. This method was, in part, instrumental in the formation of Ackerman Institute projects such as GFP.

“GFP empowers youth, families and communities by providing gender affirmative services, training and research,” according to the Institute. The project “promotes gender inclusivity as a form of social justice in all the systems involved in the life of the family.” The Institute also “provides comprehensive multidisciplinary services for gender expansive children, transgender adolescents, their families and communities,” which includes “support groups for caregivers, grandparents, siblings and family members, family therapy and parental coaching, and affirmative psychological and gender evaluation.”

In acknowledgement of the Ackerman Institute’s outstanding supportive achievements, a Proclamation was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio to designate the date of April 16, 2018 as the Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project Day in the City of New York. “The Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project does incredible work to support transgender and gender expansive youth and promote family and community acceptance of all young people,” said NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray, who launched the NYC Unity Project in 2017, New York City’s first-ever, multi-agency strategy to deliver services that address the challenges of LGBTQ youth.

Now, more than ever, the Ackerman Institute stands committed “to ending violence against the trans community, outlawing conversion therapy, and call out the excessive policing and force against the LGBTQIA+ community. Committed to social justice, we stand in solidarity with the Black community at the Ackerman Institute and the world over. As family therapists, our ethics demand that we care about all people, all families, and act towards social justice. We must demand that Black lives matter and take action, especially those of us who sit with White privilege. We simply cannot be silent.” ⠀

And in 2010, the same year that the Ackerman Institute launched its Gender & Family Project, the Audre Lorde Project opened their Manhattan location at 147 West 24th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, near the Flatiron District. Lorde’s Project is best known as a community organizing center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non Conforming (LGBTSTGNC) People of Color in New York City.

Harlem, New York native Audre Lorde was a globally-acclaimed and self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her writing dealt primarily with issues such as feminism, lesbianism, and black female identity. Lorde once said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

The Audre Lorde Project was created two years after the writer’s death in 1992. The Lorde Project “was first brought together by Advocates for Gay Men of Color, a multi-racial network of gay men of color HIV policy advocates, in 1994. The vision for ALP grew out of the expressed need for innovative and unified community strategies to address the multiple issues impacting LGBTSTGNC People of Color communities.” ALP moved into its first location, the Fort Greene, Brooklyn parish house of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1996, followed by a second location on West 24th Street in Manhattan in 2010.

“While the Audre Lorde Project will keep its church-housed Fort Greene space as a satellite,” wrote Time Out New York on September 9, 2010, “it expects its newly visible, handicap-accessible, closer-to-more-subways home to significantly broaden its reach.” Some of the events held by the Lorde Project’s new 24th Street location included TransJustice Campaign meetings.

TransJustice is a political group created by and for Trans and Gender Non-conforming people of color. “TransJustice works to mobilize its communities and allies into action on the pressing political issues they face, including gaining access to jobs, housing, and education; the need for Trans-sensitive healthcare, HIV-related services, and job-training programs; and resisting police, government and anti-immigrant violence.” 

In November 2019, however, the Audre Lorde Project announced that the organization would now operate out of one office, their location in Brooklyn. During the months of December 2019 and January 2020, the Lorde Project organized a self-described “moving party” and provided food and MetroCards to all those who offered their support.

“Because we know our work to be far from finished,” wrote the organization, “we are making this move back to Fort Greene to save, fundraise, and intentionally plan for a future in a more permanent and accessible home. Through mobilization, education and capacity-building, we work for community wellness and progressive social and economic justice. Committed to struggling across differences, we seek to responsibly reflect, represent and serve our various communities.”

Photo Credit: NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

 

May 28, 2020

Discover Flatiron: Municipal Lodging House

As part of our Discover Flatiron series about New York resiliency and in observance of National Hunger Awareness Day on June 7th, the Flatiron Partnership recalls the 1909 opening of the Municipal Lodging House located at 432-438 East 25th Street. The property once served as the first-ever temporary housing facility in Manhattan that provided food and shelter to the City’s neediest for 40 years.

For decades, New Yorkers have been known to come to the aid of others. Such actions included those taken by a Flatiron neighborhood native, Theodore Roosevelt, who played an integral role in the development of the Municipal Lodging House for homeless men, women, and children.

Starting in the 1870s, an abundance of wealth flourished during the period known as the Gilded Age, which showcased some of the most expansive and expensive real estate in Madison Square and beyond. But, the era of success was soon marred by an economic depression like no other with the arrival of the Panic of 1893. According to the History Channel, “it was wealthy tycoons, not politicians, who inconspicuously held the most political power during the Gilded Age” and soon “banks and other businesses folded, and the stock market plunged, leaving millions unemployed, homeless, and hungry.”

Roosevelt’s roots in Progressivism had long been established before he took the Presidency in 1901. He had served as Commissioner of New York City’s Police Department from 1895 to 1897. During this time, Roosevelt embraced the philosophies of his friend, Jacob Riis, a housing reform activist and reporter, to establish a temporary housing shelter (Rediscovering Jacob Riis). Roosevelt responded to the Riis book, How the Other Half Lives, by telling the author personally: “I have read your book, and I have come to help”.

Thus, the economic downturn during the late 1800s led to the 1896 opening of the first Municipal Lodging House, which was operated by the New York City Department of Welfare. Situated on East 23rd Street and First Avenue, the facility later relocated to a newly constructed and much larger venue on East 25th Street, between First Avenue and the East River. 

(Bread and Coffee at Municipal Lodging House. Photo Credit: Library of Congress: George Grantham Bain Collection).

When the newly constructed lodging house opened on February 20, 1909, the reported $400,000, the six-story structure featured a disinfecting plant for occupants’ garments, as well as “964 beds–800 iron bunks for men on three floors,” noted The New York Times in 1991. “The rest were for women and children. Three meals a day were served and, to screen out idlers, men had to work five hours a day in a stone yard.” Dorothy Laager Miller adds, women lodgers “were provided a sewing machine for their use and a laundry room where they could wash their own clothes if they wanted to” (New York City in the Great Depression: Sheltering the Homeless). Reportedly, 426 men and 29 women, of whom 20 had children, entered the building on that wintry Saturday evening.

“Talk to the men who come in to dine on the city’s bread and coffee and sleep in the city’s white enameled beds, you’ll find a strange family resemblance in all their stories,” reported The Evening World newspaper on February 22, 1909.

According to The New York Times, “Official reports painted a fairly rosy picture of the lodging house with minimum concerns,” but also featured an incident with a man “who was arrested three times for vagrancy and who organized a boycott in 1910”. In his opinion, the facility was “not fit for a dog. We can't get to bed there until 1 in the morning, and we have to get up at 4 and then do five hours of work for three hours of sleep.”

(Photo Credit: Library of Congress: George Grantham Bain Collection).

The 1910 census recorded that the Municipal Lodging House had a total of 236 residents. But, by 1914, the facility “experienced its first overflow and by 1932, two piers had been renovated to bring the total capacity to 4,500,” reported The Times during the depth of the Great Depression. A new chapter about the building’s survival, however, was soon-to-be written.

After confronting the challenges of the influenza pandemic of 1918, as well as an end to the Great Depression in 1941 and the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the Municipal Lodging House was decidedly demolished in 1949 to make way for a healthcare complex that would now serve the needs of future generations. Today, the buildings include the Manhattan VA Medical Center and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, the flagship nursing school of The City University of New York. “It seems strange that the Municipal Lodging House had such a short life, from 1909 to 1949,” recalled The New York Times on December 22, 1991. “What seems even stranger is that it remains an absolutely singular event in the building history of Manhattan.”


Header and Thumbnail Photo Credit: New York City in the Great Depression: Sheltering the Homeless by Dorothy Laager Miller

May 15, 2020

Flatiron Postcards: Flatiron District's Iconic Intersection

As a part of our "Postcard Preview" series, these historical postcards come to us from the personal collection of Miriam Berman, a local NYC historian who is one of the tour guides for our weekly historic walking tours, which are currently on hold due to COVID-19. Miriam walks us through another of her personal favorites depicting the Flatiron neighborhood. 
 

WHAT SURROUNDED THE FLATIRON BUILDING? 

When the Flatiron Building was built in 1902, the famous Fifth Avenue Hotel stood diagonally across the way on Fifth Avenue between West 23rd and 24th Streets. 

(Postcard depicting the Fifth Avenue Hotel in 1905. Publisher unknown. Click here for larger image

The Fifth Avenue Hotel was dubbed ‘Eno’s Folly’ after the savvy real estate magnate Amos Eno erected the hotel in 1859 - a time when the neighborhood was considered a no-man’s-land. Eno shed the hotel’s negative connotation when he invited the Prince of Wales to be a guest at the hotel during the Prince's first trip to America in 1860. The publicity of this event attracted the attention of other real estate moguls who followed Eno’s lead and took interest in developing the area. This led to a string of hotels, restaurants, and theatres opening along Broadway. Eno helped successfully lay the foundation for the vibrant district that we enjoy today. 

(Postcard depicting the Fifth Avenue Building in 1920 by W.J. Roege Publisher. Click for larger image.)

In 1908, the hotel plot became the Fifth Avenue Building, where it has stood for the past 112 years and is now known as 200 Fifth. When the Fifth Avenue Building first opened, its offices and showrooms quickly filled with a diverse array of businesses. By the 1960s, however, the owners began renting exclusively to toy companies. The building then became known as the International Toy Center. The Toy Center grew so quickly it expanded its footprint to include an adjacent building, linked by a street-bridge high above West 24th Street. Toy buyers from all over the world would visit the Center to both view and purchase innovative toy products.

The two buildings later separated, and the Toy Fairs moved on to be hosted at the Javits Center. 200 Fifth continued its fame by becoming home to several prestigious companies — the world headquarters of Grey Advertising, the business offices of Tiffany’sEataly's first marketplace location, Marimekko, and, as a nod to the toy industry, Lego's flagship store. 

The Flatiron Building housed equally eclectic tenants including some toy companies and a number of publishing companies. Some 118 years later, Macmillan Publishing bid farewell after being the Flatiron Building's longest tenants. Currently, the landmarked skyscraper is undergoing an extensive interior renovation and it's next tenant remains unknown. 

Somehow it seemed like the uniquely shaped parcel often referred to as “a stingy piece of pie” was destined for greatness. Before the Flatiron Building's construction, the Flatiron plot was occupied by a series of low buildings. An 1880's image featured in a Harper’s Magazine showed a horizontal banner that was installed on the plot’s lowest building. The banner read, “The Center of the United States — Here.” An appropriate message for its time and one that continues to capture the essence of the area's appeal. 

Header Image: Postcard from 1905 by Bamforth
Publishers, N.Y. City (Click here for larger image).