In their final posting, our New York correspondents Jon Hammer and Karen McBurnie celebrate an overlooked aspect of the adman's art.
Sometimes the most humble doorway offers an opportunity for time travel. Walking crosstown between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York City’s Diamond District we did a double-take when we spotted these classic examples of an advertising form from the past. Reading up the stairs is a tenant directory in grab-ya primary colors, stark sans serif type font and no-nonsense brevity. Of course we live in an age where every square inch of available space can and will be used for hawking some sort of commercial enterprise. The surprise is that this type of signage, once ubiquitous midtown, has all but died out except in these blocks of 46th and 47th Streets.
While the workaday well-trodden stairs are picturesque, it’s encouraging to find fresh examples of step ads making a comeback around town. (Nyaaah, we do like some new stuff.) Most prominent is at Lincoln Center.At Josie Robertson Plaza, the point-of-entry fronting Columbus Avenue, the zippy LED-light steps are programmed to welcome visitors in several languages, and elegantly trumpet the events of the day.
Next we noticed that Bloomingdale’s, a 1930s art deco department store hidden under ‘70s glitz and fashion hubbub, has tech-ed up the joint. A stairway to the mezzanine contains illuminated messages urging you to take advantage of telephone charging facilities -- a useful service and a shrewd way to keep potential customers on premises.
Step ads call to mind the classic Burma Shave billboard advertising of the early 20th century when the brushless shaving cream company entertained automobile travelers with serial billboards featuring roadside poetry like this:
Had no B.O.
But his whiskers scratched
So she let him go.
Nothing so clever today, but still we are cheered to see a current example in the subway caves, a reminder of scuzzy, scary old NYC.
Above: Bloomingdales; below: Lincoln Center
This is the season for tradition. Whether it is unwrapping our favorite ornaments or having the same screaming fight with the relatives we had last year, there is comfort in the many little rituals that make up the holiday. We think the best traditions are the ones you create. A thrifted 1960s felt reindeer named Twiglana, singing along with Yak Shaving Day from Ren & Stimpy’s Crock O’ Christmas, or that cookie recipe Mom culled from The Pocket Cook Book paperback; it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house without them. Likewise, spending time with our friends is at least as important at this time of year as catching up with family.
Our Christmas Eve is spent in Manhattan and includes a Japanese meal, a stroll through the avenues strikingly hushed of traffic and din yet buoyant with tourists and die-hard New Yorkers in festive spirits, and topped with a nightcap at a ritzy hotel bar that is decked out in eye-popping holiday tinsel.
But our favourite celebration of all is the annual radio Christmas party hosted by the one and only Rex Doane on his Fool’s Paradise program. That means schlepping out to Jersey City, NJ to the mighty WFMU studios. WFMU is listener-sponsored freeform radio at its finest. From the deejays to the support staff, the station is a labour of love for all involved. In Rex’s case, his devotion is focused on presenting the kookiest bop, slop and schlock, the oddest examples of rock'n’roll he can find, as long as it has been pressed on vinyl and spins at 45rpm. We like to say he’s the Keeper of the American Novelty Songbook, and that means we will be treated to a very extraordinary brand of Christmas music.
Besides the crazy tunes, there are gifts to give and holiday treats to eat. (Both are fascinating for the listener at home). Another highlight is something we like to call Radio Bartender, in which your editors of Grade “A” Fancy mix up a new original cocktail, live on air, to honor the season. A Fool’s Paradise cocktail, as a matter of policy, requires no special-order syrups, no eye of newt-infused spirits, no eyedroppers or custom gadgets; all of this stuff is available at your grocer’s, and from the local spirits emporium. This year’s concoction is called O Tavern Bound. It’s a comforting seasonal potion, a little spicy, a little fruity, and deeply boozy. Here's to us all! Drink up every one.
WFMU is available on your radio dial at 91.1 fm in New York, at 90.1 fm in the Hudson Valley. If you are not in the tri-state area you can listen in real time via the World Wide Web, or sample an archived show any time, any season.
Season's ho-ho, Jon & Karen
Our New York guides, Grade "A" Fancy's Karen McBurnie and Jon Hammer, take a step in time.
Manhattan is too much, all the time. We have too many favourite restaurants to become regulars at any one. There is always so much to do that some nights we would like to send out our clone so we could laze at home with an old movie and a highball.
Take any familiar street and no matter how many hundred times you've walked in that direction there can be something you have missed. Perhaps because you are usually on the north rather than the south side, or some favourite detail demands your attention, or if you always look right instead of left, or up not down; there's a good chance there will be some choice tidbit you will never see. We're usually looking up at some architectural surprise or ghost sign, or avoiding traffic and pedestrians, but now and again one has to look down at the sidewalk, though it's usually to avoid dog poo, scary fluids or other ickiness. If you are standing on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane it's a mistake to focus all your attention on the crowds trying to shove you off the sidewalk to your certain doom because if you'll just look down at your feet you will find a unique bit of street furniture. Here is a real working clock imbedded in the sidewalk.
A sidewalk clock in a free-standing pedestal base (like a lamppost) was a fairly common advertising gimmick for jewelers and hoteliers beginning about the 1860s, but this is the only example in the city of a clock mounted in the pavement. It is courtesy of William Barthman Jewelers, which opened in the 1880s on Maiden Lane, relocated around the corner to 174 Broadway in 1885 and in 2006 moved to larger quarters at number 176. According to the New York Times, this clock (another preceded this one) as it appears today may date from 1923, or 1951, or 1966 – no one is quite sure anymore, written records are incomplete.
Speaking of dazzling jewels, we're used to thinking of the Diamond District as that busy stretch of West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, but in the last half of the 19th century Maiden Lane, four blocks north of Wall Street, was where you went for precious baubles. At one point there were 308 jewelers in a two block section. By 1924 rising rents, driven by encroaching insurance and financial business in the neighbourhood, had forced the jewelers uptown.
Maiden Lane itself runs eastward from Broadway, the curve in the lane following the stream that long ago ran to the East River; to the west it is Cortlandt Street, known in the early half of the twentieth century as the city's Radio Row back before construction of the World Trade Center confiscated some blocks and displaced the businesses.
Pause for Refreshment: Near the curve in Maiden Lane, between William and Gold Streets at number 75, is Jim Brady's, which at first glance seems to be yet another prefab Irish bar. Inside it is a spacious restaurant with appealing low lighting, surprisingly good food, and what is said to be the actual bar from the famous Stork Club. If your gaslight-era American history is fuzzy we'll remind you that "Diamond" Jim Brady was a colourful figure from the Gilded Age, when too much, all the time, was barely sufficient. He was a man with a taste for opulent jewelry, and his appetite at the dinner table for consuming the very best quality in enormous quantity – and then still greater quantity – was legend.
Grade "A" Fancy's Karen McBurnie and Jon Hammer continue as our guides, revealing overlooked aspects of the New York they love.
Sutton Place has been one of the ritziest addresses in the city for many decades, but back in the 1920s and 1930s wealth and poverty lived cheek by jowl on this handful of quaint streets overlooking the East River. The indispensable WPA Guide to New York City (1939) tells us, "Here drying winter flannels are within fishpole reach of a Wall Street tycoon's windows, and the society woman in her boudoir may be separated only by a wall from the family on relief in a cold-water flat."
This strange proximity was the subject of a 1935 Broadway hit, Dead End written by Sidney Kingsley. Two years later the play became a movie of the same name starring Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, and a mob of teen toughs billed as The Dead End Kids. Featuring Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, the Kids' appearance had a realistic dramatic impact that netted the boys a series of pictures which became the long running Bowery Boys franchise. Sadly, compared to Dead End these later pictures, as Slip Mahoney himself might put it, stink.
The river drew rich and poor alike to this neighbourhood, the poor folk to jobs at the local slaughterhouses, the wealthy for easy access to their yachts docked below their penthouses high on the bluff. That all changed when construction of the FDR Drive leveled the meat packing plants and severed the connection between the water and Sutton Place, leaving luxury apartment buildings and townhouses lining a string of secluded streets, five of them ending in vest pocket parks, collectively known as Sutton Park.
These tiny parks are wonderfully quiet, hidden little oases, with some of the most beautiful views of the East River and Queensboro Bridge. Fans of Woody Allen's Manhattan will find the setting very familiar.
At the end of East 57th Street we find this rather mysterious gent. He is a modern copy of a bronze from 1634 by Baroque master Pietro Tacca. The original was nicknamed Il Porcellino (The Piglet) by his hometown, Florence, Italy. This handsome warthog dates from 1972 and must be very grateful to the late Hugh Trumbull Adams, a local philanthropist, for installing him at this swanky location.
Throughout December Grade "A" Fancy's Karen McBurnie and Jon Hammer will be our guides, revealing aspects of New York that most visitors will never see. Their tour begins in a midtown you may not recognise.
New Yorkers live in the centre of the universe. No
sense in arguing the point, they're convinced. But where is the centre of New
York City? You might say Times Square, but you would be wrong. We have stumbled
upon – or more accurately trod upon – a monument purporting to be the centre of
the city, just a mile from where we live in the borough of Queens, on a sliver
of traffic island in the middle of a speedy thoroughfare. There it is, on
Queens Boulevard at 58th Street, in letters of bronze, the geographical centre
Scanning the surroundings for signs of civilisation, a
more accurate legend might be "the middle of nowhere." This
crossroads features three boring chain stores and a cemetery. Looking west,
over a rise in the road, you can just make out the top of the Empire State
Building a good four miles distant.
Is this really the geographic centre? It depends some
on how you measure and who you ask, but apparently not. The Department of City
Planning puts it in Bushwick, Brooklyn, near the intersection of Stockholm
Street and Wyckoff Avenue. Strangely; no one seems to know who installed this
Queens Boulevard marker. No city agency has owned up to it, and from its
condition we would guess no one is maintaining it. It's a mystery.
It appears we've dragged you out to this curious
wasteland on a wild goose chase. Never fear, we are steps away from the best
pint of Guinness in Woodside and surely that will redeem the day nicely. A
short walk up 58th Street to the main drag of Roosevelt Avenue, and here we are
the mother ship of pubs in this very Irish neighborhood.
The old-timers love this place for lunch after church.
Their menu is heavy on old fashioned meat-and-potatoes favorites, but the
hamburgers and steak fries are the standout items. A cocktail or beer in the
dark bar is a fine way to spend an afternoon, with the sun lighting up the
colored glass windows and the clatter of the subway heard seeping through the
door. But for the scourge of the flat-screen TVs, it could be 1966, the year
Donovan's opened. This may not be the centre of New York City, but it is the
heart of our own Woodside, Queens.
You owe it to yourself
to explore more of New York with Jon and Karen through their Grade "A" Fancy site and also the Herb Lester map, Truly Greenwich Village, which guides the reader through the best of the area.