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Looking At The Periphery

When I look at the fantastic photos in Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project from 1935, I find myself spending a lot of time looking not at the main subject of the shots, but at the edges. I suspect this is because she was so good at framing the photos that there is something of interest everywhere you look. The picture above is titled “First Avenue and East 70th Street” and at first glance, that’s what it is: a view east on 70th Street to the East River from the avenue.

The north side of 70th Street, on the left, is almost all Old Law tenements. (The things on the roof on the far left are probably poles to hold clotheslines, not any kind of antennas.) At the sidewalk corner on the right is one of the old-fashioned fat fire-department call boxes. We don’t have a good view of the building on the right, on the south side of 70th Street, but the sign indicates it’s a loft building. The Upper East Side at that tine, from Third Avenue to the river, was almost all tenements and industry, although the industry was dying. The fact that the loft building is advertising “100% Sprinklered” strongly suggests that it has ordinary wood (not heavy timber) floors. If it was heavy timber or concrete-floored, it would have been advertised as “fireproof.”

At the end of the north side is a big modern building. That’s one of the first buildings of the new campus of New York Hospital, which moved to the York Avenue site in 1932. (“York Avenue” is the fancy rebranding of Avenue A, which occupies the position that Zero Avenue would theoretically have, one block east of First Avenue.) The hospital’s new buildings were all big steel-frame structures with weird semi-gothic window details.

The best side issue in this view is the big ad painted on the tenement at the left. “Children Cry For Castoria” was such a successful ad campaign for that brand of castor oil that it had a song used in 1925 as a radio jingle. I find it hard to believe that any child had much of a preference for one brand of castor oil over another, but advertising is not necessarily conducive to that form of analysis.