Skip to main content

The Many Lives of Second Avenue (A Walk)

Judging just by the looks of its current commercial occupants, the stretch of Second Avenue between Houston on the south and 14th Street to the north appears primarily as a food destination. Dozens of restaurants and bars crowd both sides of the eclectic-looking avenue, offering an impressive array of world cuisine - Thai, Ukrainian, North African, Belgian, New American, French, and more. Several celebrated restaurants, such as Momofuku Ssäm Bar on the southwest corner of Second Avenue and E. 13th Street, have been gravitating to this part of the East Village for the past few years. Beyond its culinary moment in the sun, however, Second Avenue's famous past is increasingly hard to discern. The street served as the nerve center for many important cultural moments, but two periods of its history stand out - first, as a major center for Yiddish theatre in the early part of the 20th century, and second, as a major thoroughfare in the downtown art scene from the 1960s to 1990.

I was reminded of the avenue's theater history this week by reading the New York Times obituary of Mina Bern, 98, described there as "a plucky and versatile actress and singer who was one of the last links to the scrappy world of Yiddish theater in New York." Second Avenue was once home to over a dozen Yiddish-language theaters that catered to the nearby tenement dwellers in the Lower East Side. A couple of these old theater buildings remain, though used in a different capacity - the Village East Cinemas, formerly the Yiddish Art Theatre, and the Orpheum, a smaller theatre originally built for vaudeville but later for Yiddish theater. At the southeast corner of Second Avenue and E. 10th Street, in front of what is now a Chase bank location, look down at the sidewalk. For many years, the Second Avenue Deli (162 E 33rd St.) was at this location, and its owner, Abe Lebewohl, installed this Yiddish Walk of Fame here in front of his restaurant to celebrate the stars of the era. Presenting often innovative plays such as The Dybbuk (1919) and The Golem (1921) during its heyday, a few of the theaters continued operations into the 1960s. By then, the surrounding neighborhood, a place people considered to be the northern section of the Lower East Side, began to establish a separate identity as the East Village.



Seeing the new exhibit at NYU's Grey Art Museum, Downtown Pix: Mining the Fales Archives, 1961-1991, reminded me of the emergence of this second wave of celebrity for Second Avenue and surrounding streets. First the Beats and then the artists associated with the Downtown Scene moved into the tenements and the theaters, making new art and new music. Second Avenue became home to gay émigré Quentin Crisp and artist David Wojnarowicz. La Mama Experimental Theater Company was located here until the late 1960s. In 1970 Jonas Mekas and others opened Anthology Film Archives in a building at the intersection of 2nd Street to showcase experimental cinema. The Warhol crowd hung out in the avenue cabaret bars. In 1968 the Fillmore East opened in a movie house and Yiddish theatre at the intersection of E. 6th Street and Second Avenue. The art, music, films, and lifestyles explored on these streets reverberated throughout the entire world.


View The Many Lives of Second Avenue, Houston to 14th Street in a larger map

Several other notable buildings along Second Avenue point to additional stories from the past. Certainly, St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, located on the 17th century farm of Petrus Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, connects the thoroughfare with early New York history. In modern history, the church has been associated with many arts groups such as Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater. The Ottendorfer Library, founded in 1884, and the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital connect the area to its days as a German neighborhood. Middle Collegiate Church, housed in a renovated building from 1892, traces its history back to 1628. Several places along the way show historic links to Ukrainian culture.

Who knows what new life will unfold along this historic thoroughfare? Word comes this week that the Telephone Bar and Grill, a popular British-style pub, will close at the end of the month after 22 years on Second Avenue. The closure comes as yet another in East Village's disappearing act. No doubt other places will come and go. Beyond food and drink, however, the street awaits a new creative culture. We can only hope for that. Second Avenue needs to live up to its former billing, beyond just being a place to eat.

Images of Second Avenue by Walking Off the Big Apple from the morning of January 13, 2010. Clicking on images will enlarge them in a new window. Created with various settings of the lo-mob app for the iPhone. For more on iPhone camera apps, consult this post.

Comments

  1. claudine11:51 AM

    Merci pour la promenade sur la Second Avenue ! Son histoire est très intéressante.
    Bonne journée ! Claudine

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hippiechick2:39 PM

    The Polyclinic too has closed: signs blared the arrival of a new hip condo building, but nothing's been done for many months. Pity to see such a great old building reduced to housing incomers.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Thank you for your response! Walking Off the Big Apple is accepting comments. Please be relevant to the content and do not solicit or engage in self-promotion. Thoughtful responses are welcome. Comments are moderated at all times.










Popular posts from this blog

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block. 
Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.  In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia University Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, at 1150 St. Nicholas Avenue, was the closest to the train stop. The Fort Washington Avenue Armory at 216 Ft. Washington Avenue is located a couple of blocks to the west.On Saturday, I …

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north. 
One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red. Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.  Still, October is a great time for a walk. Exploring the villages along the Hudson line may be accomplished on foot, and many cater to visitors with signs and maps indicating the village’s…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

A Daytime Walk on Broadway and the Theater in the Dark

On October 9, the Broadway League announced that the theater season has been postponed through May 2021, leaving Broadway dark for the winter and into the spring of next year. According to the press release, “Broadway performances were initially suspended due to COVID 19 on March 12, 2020. At that time, 31 productions were running, including 8 new shows in previews. Additionally, 8 productions were in rehearsals preparing to open in the spring.”It’s hard to imagine New York without the theater. Even a daytime walk along the way in the Theater District near Times Square will reveal that the theater, in terms of live performances with an audience, has gone dark. Without Broadway, that leaves visitors to Times Square with few options for general amusement. Many stores and restaurants have closed as well. The lights are still up and blazing. When the Empire State Building was left nearly empty during the Great Depression, just a few years after it opened, the building crew kept the lights…

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.*Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries.I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I would sit in t…

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video, filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.”

When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months.

I hadn’t ventured into Central Park since before the pandemic. While I’ve b…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED October 10, 2020. Many favorite local destinations have now reopened. 

Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations   
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity.
• As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER.
• The 9/11 Memorial reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices.
• (update) Libraries: NYPL. The library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.
Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets. 
• The High Line reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entrance only at Gansevoort Street. See High Line website for details. 
The Bronx Zoo reopened July 20 fo…

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings.
Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours.
UPDATED September 23, 2020
Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details.
• The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reopened to the public on August 27, with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on Mondays for MoMA members only. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum.
• New-York Historical Society reopened on August 14 with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine.
• The Metropolitan …

Connect the Dots: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan

Please see the revised and updated post, New York as Outdoor Museum: A Self-Guided Walk to Public Art in Lower Manhattan, June 2012.)

Lower Manhattan, with its tapered narrow geography between the two rivers spilling into New York Harbor, is not only a convenient area to walk but it's rich in public art.

Be sure to include Jean Dubuffet's Group of Four Trees, 1969-72 (left), in front of the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza off of Pine Street, the Louise Nevelson Plaza on Maiden Lane (below), and many of the works in Battery Park City.

The latter area, under the guidance of the Battery Park City Authority, raised a new high standard in the 1980s with its commitment to incorporating public art into the new community. There, be sure to see Jim Dine's Ape and Cat (at the Dance) in Robert F. Wagner. Jr. Park, a blend of charm and danger, and South Cove, a great collaborative work of environmental design.



Also welcome is the Downtown Alliance's public art program, Re:Construction,…